Maria Stuarda: Metropolitan Opera, 19th January 2013

E-mail Print PDF

A blood-drenched and gryphon grapple over the crown in John Macfarlane’s arresting frontcloth for the Metropolitan Opera’s first production of Maria Stuarda, the second of Donizetti’s ‘Tudor trilogy’, never intended as such, of course, but leapt upon by opera companies keen to flex their bel canto muscles. This is the second instalment of David McVicar’s cycle, following last year’s Anna Bolena, and although still on the conservative side in terms of production, this was a good deal more striking, even via the cinema. The frontcloth wrangling points to the key Act II confrontation between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, pure fiction invented by Friedrich Schiller but none the worse for that, culminating in Mary’s insult ‘Vil bastarda’ which so upset the censors at the Naples premiere before Ferdinand II (whose queen was a Stuart descendent) had it banned. Sparks didn’t quite fly at the Met, but a dramatic tension was sustained throughout the performance, the only question mark of which dangled over the casting of the two protagonists.

Where Bolena had been soaked in dark hues, courtesy of Robert Jones, Macfarlane floods the stage with bright reds in a stylized version of the Elizabethan court in Act I, while the forest outside Fotheringhay Castle, scene of the great confrontation, is set against glowering skies. Mary’s room is backed by a black wall on which extracts of her ‘casket letters’ (used to incriminate her in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley) are scrawled in white like graffiti. Scenes flow into each other unhindered to maintain momentum. As in Bolena, the final image is with the executioner at the scaffold – a typical McVicar flourish. Any takers for how he’ll conclude Roberto Devereux…?

In a pre-performance chat with Peter Gelb before last season’s Bolena, Anna Netrebko revealed that her preparation for the role included watching the raunchy television series The Tudors. Last night, it was Joshua Hopkins (Cecil) who divulged that another (older) BBC series - Elizabeth R – had been part of his televisual research. As far as McVicar himself is concerned, I wouldn’t be surprised if he went further back to the 1939 film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, so Bette Davis-like is the inspiration for his crotchety Elizabeth I as portrayed by South African soprano Elza van den Heever. She eschews elegance and swaggers about the court with a masculine gait, exaggerated by Macfarlane’s costumes – I fear Elizabeth’s riding habit would defy even the most experienced equestrian!  The advance of ten years between Acts I and II is clearly signalled in Elizabeth’s appearance after the interval; weary, bald-headed, teeth blackened. McVicar lets us see behind the Gloriana façade and her delay in signing Mary’s death warrant allows a greater degree of sympathy to flow her way than is usual. This scene alone makes me hanker after a McVicar staging of Britten’s Gloriana at some point. He clearly has a strong feel for the period. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, especially as the fog of the final scene clears to reveal the scaffold, is striking.

As fine an impact as the production makes, any performance of Maria Stuarda rests on the central casting and here doubts crept in. Netrebko was originally slated for all three Donizetti queens, but after a better than anticipated Anna Bolena (in Vienna as well as at the Met), she has bowed out, ceding to Joyce DiDonato as Maria and Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. However, this resulted in a mezzo Maria and a soprano Elisabetta, with both singers stretched uncomfortably at different ends of their vocal means. I’ve hailed DiDonato’s operatic and concert performances regularly here, but even with much of Maria’s music transposed down she didn’t quite surmount the vocal challenges as cleanly as I’d anticipated. In particular, her pianissimo high notes lose a sense of colour, tending towards ‘whiteness’; it could be argued that this leads to a greater purity of sound, but I found her vibrato became intrusive. She was at her best in the Act II aria ‘Quando di luce rosea’. Dramatically, she was faultless, her interactions with van der Heever’s bullish Elizabeth, her lady-in-waiting and Matthew Rose’s excellent Talbot especially, finely honed. She projects sincerity in her Act II prayer and ultimately one is moved by the noble dignity with which she accepts her fate. However, it didn’t stop me wondering what her Elisabetta would have been like.

If DiDonato was stretched at the top of her range, van den Heever found it a struggle at the opposite end. She sang the role at the written pitch and it was a game effort, but her lower register sounded hollow at best, almost disappearing into the ether. At the top, her soprano is bright and incisive, while her acting fitted into the Bette Davis mould splendidly; a larger than life monarch, but one whose mask slips in private.

Matthew Polenzani has turned into a more than reliable bel cantist for the Met. After his Nemorino which opened the season, his Leicester was elegantly sung, even if he was dramatically dwarfed by his two queens. Matthew Rose’s Talbot was both sonorous and sympathetic. He has terrific stage presence, making the scene where he comforts Mary ahead of her execution the opera’s most touching. Joshua Hopkins, hampered by the most laughable of prop beards, was a decent Lord Cecil. Maurizio Benini conducted limply.


Mark Pullinger

Opera Britannia

Photographs © Ken Howard



Last Updated ( Thursday, 28 November 2013 16:58 )  

Recent Reviews

Puccini: Tosca

Renée Fleming, our hostess with the mostest at the Metropolitan Opera’s latest cinema relay of Tosca a few weeks ago, urged us – as ever – to experience opera first-hand and to ‘come visit the Met’ or to support your local opera company. The Opera Britannia excursions budget wouldn’t get you as far as York, let alone New York, so my local company it was and performing the same opera too. Tosca is very much the safe, financial bolster to Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy in its autumn season – a crowd-pleaser of a production excavated from 1992, but which seemed even older.


Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

And so to Milton Keynes, pursued by a perishing wind fit to crack the famous concrete cows. The Milton Keynes Theatre, as a venue, is one of the jewels in the ATG crown, big enough to house almost any touring product, with spacious and well-designed auditorium and foyers. Unfortunately it is marooned in one of those soulless retail areas surrounded by a sea of mediocre chain outlets which offer the same tat or that which passes for food in a thousand other identical areas the world over. Whether it was position or the icy blasts which accounted for the poorly populated house is hard to say.


Mozart: The Magic Flute

For all the risk-taking in the operatic world, productions which are guaranteed bums-on-seats bankers are like Nibelung gold. To scrap not one but two such productions is a brave move for English National Opera this season. We shall see what Christopher Alden inflicts on Rigoletto in the spring, replacing Jonathan Miller’s famous Little Italy staging. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner’s much loved production of The Magic Flute has finally been laid to rest (after a few ‘absolutely your last chance to see’ revivals), replaced with this new one by Simon McBurney and Complicite.


Shostakovich: The Nose

Described at the time as “an anarchist’s hand grenade,” The Nosewas not well received and soon disappeared from view, although Malko, one of Shostakovich’s teachers at the Conservatoire, recognised the quality of the score. It was composed in 1927-28 and given a concert performance, against Shostakovich’s better judgment, in 1929: “The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action...It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it."



ENO goes widescreen

After resisting the prevailing tide for opera houses beaming their wares to a worldwide cinema audience, English National Opera has seen the light. From 2014, selected productions will be screened at 300 cinemas around the UK and beyond, starting with its revival of David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton. A new production, by Terry Gilliam, of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini will also be relayed. Gilliam’s earlier Berlioz adventure, The Damnation of Faust, was broadcast on television.



Poetry Corner

Biography: Mary Robertson is an Emeritus Professor in Neuropsychiatry at University College London and visiting Professor at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London. Aside from being an opera devotee, Mary is a published poet and photographer.

(New poems added: 04/08/2010)

more >>



News updates

Subscribe to Opera Britannia to receive all the latest news and latest reviews

Signup >>

Around the Houses

Dmitri Platanias will sing the title role when the Royal Opera revives its new production of Nabucco. Mariusz Kwiecien will be joined by Saimir Pirgu in Steffen Aarfing's production of Szymanowski's King Roger at Covent Garden in 2015. The Royal Opera will stage Andrea Chenier in 2014/15 with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Željko Lucic.

Anna Netrebko is due to sing the role of Lady Macbeth for a single performance at the Bavarian State Opera in June 2014.

Maria Agresta will sing Lucrezia in Verdi's I due Foscari in the 2014-15 season at Covent Garden. Placido Domingo does the Doge double, adding the baritone role of Francesca Foscari to his Simon Boccanegra.

Corinne Winters, fresh from her triumph as Violetta in ENO's production of La traviata, is to return to the Coliseum next season as Teresa in Berlioz's Benvenuto CelliniMichael Spyres sings the title role in a production which sees the return ofTerry Gilliam to the director's seat, after his Damnation of Faust debut.

. Read More>>

"Around the Houses" concentrates on providing the latest news on future plans for opera companies around the globe, artists schedules, cancellations and interesting snippets of information. We will try and avoid unsubstantiated gossip wherever possible, but all of our sources will remain completely confidential.  If you would like to advise us about potential news for this section, then please feel free to email us at

Coming Soon

Reviews to be published shortly:



CD Reviews

Vivaldi: Catone in Utica (Naive)

Although he claimed to have composed around ninety operas, there cannot be many left in the archives of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin for Naïve to record in its ongoing Vivaldi Edition if you discount pasticcios, reworkings and incomplete works. Their latest offering, the fourteenth opera in the series, falls into the latter category, for only Acts II and III of Catone in Utica have survived. The opera was written to celebrate the culmination of his third and final season at Verona’s Teatro dell’Accademia Filarmonica – a profitable success for the composer. Premiered in 1737, it is unknown whether Act I was even written by Vivaldi himself, or whether music by other composers was employed.

Read more>>

Recital Reviews

Anne Sofie von Otter: Alumni Series

Milton Court, 23rd November 2013

When this was first drawn to my attention, such is my regard for the Swedish mezzo that I immediately withdrew from reviewing Albert Herring some two hundred yards down the road in the Barbican, and enthusiastically opted for what I thought was an evening of French chansons and mélodies. What a prospect! Anne Sofie von Otter let loose on Chausson and Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc, perhaps some Gounod and Bizet, with maybe a little Délibes and/or Satie by way of let-your-hair-down encore material. All with her long-term musical accompanist Bengt Forsberg summoning up the necessary style. Rapture guaranteed, for which I arrived fully prepared.

Read more>>

DVD Reviews

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (EuroArts)

Scholars now doubt on Lucrezia Borgia’s credentials as mass poisoner, but Donizetti’s operatic treatment on her historical character would have us believe she spiked drinks with cantarella and laced dishes with deadly nightshade like nobody’s business. Lucrezia, here on her fourth marriage (in reality, her third) to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is reunited with Gennaro, her long-lost son. Unfortunately, she withholds this vital information from him and from her husband, who suspects her of conducting an affair. It’s as free an interpretation as the lusty television series The Borgias, which never got as far as this in Lucrezia’s marital history, but none the worse for that.

Read more>>

Copyright 09 Opera Britannia
facebook twitter