Maria Stuarda – Were the critics at the same show?

9 Jul

So what had changed since the first night? The reviews have been universally horrid about the visual side of the ROH’s Maria Stuarda. When I saw the second performance on 8th July, there seemed little to dislike and much to enjoy.  It struck me as the most convincing production of the opera that I’ve seen.

I was disappointed when the ROH announced that they were doing this piec as theirlatest new production. It’s the fifth time I’ve seen the opera and the sixth individual production in the UK since 1974.  I don’t believe that it’s so much better than La Favorita, Lucrezia Borgia, Anna Bolena, Roberto Devereux, not to mention many of the other Donizetti’s that we have to see only in concert. Apart from Pasquale and Elisir, it’s had more productions since 1970 (as opposed to revivals of productions) than any other his operas and I find that puzzling. Its subject matter is appealing to Anglo-Saxon audiences who can feel superior about the re-writing of history while enjoying what we all secretly feel should have happened. It has that glorious final scene as well as the confrontation but a lot of the rest of the music strikes me as pretty standard Donizetti, while the absence of Elizabeth for the last two scenes is a mistake.

So I would ideally have liked to see a different Donizetti, but the cast was beguiling and I’m a fan of the Caurier/Leiser team. I left the performance seriously thinking of shelling out to go again.

Let’s begin with the production. Lots of people seemed to be upset by the fact that the two queens were in Tudor costume while everyone else was in modern dress. It didn’t worry me: it also seemed to heighten the sense of two protagonists, two rivals, two people exposed as monarchs from the ordinariness around them. Lots of people seemed not to like the prison setting for everything after the first scene. It struck me as entirely apt – it is precisely what Maria’s first aria is about and I found the last scene, where she was in the isolated execution cell, undressed, her hair cut, accentuated the humiliation of the woman and emphasised the dignity of her response – the picture of the crowd outside lighting candles for her brought home resonances for other political prisoners imprisoned and executed by their political rivals. Fine, it wasn’t pretty. It doesn’t fit with the romantic sensibility but it found a way of convincing me that there might actually be something more to this opera than an excuse for some barnstorming and some pretty tunes.

Then there was the direction of the singers. Personally, I tend to agree that it’s probably a mistake to have Cecil wandering around with an axe so much, but that apart there was much that was good. I loved the image of Elizabeth eating a picnic lunch for the first part of the confrontation. I enjoyed the sense of political machinations in the first scene, characters liberally helping themselves from the drinks trolley. I thought they conveyed the loneliness and sad of Maria in the second beautifully – the costume evoking Cenerentola. I thought that the scene for Maria and Talbot – just the two of them in chairs, at the front of the stage – managed the intensity that you needed for that scene. And he got some completely compelling performances out of his cast. So lots to enjoy if you can bear the idea that opera doesn’t have to be a historically accurate museum piece.

I also can’t believe that Joyce DiDonato’s fabulous performance as Maria was simply down to her inherent genius. There was an integrity and completeness about the performance which was at one with the production and with the music: it did not seem at odds. She caught the sadness, the anger and the dignity or the character and managed to be very moving indeed in the last scene. Musically, I don’t think I’ve heard such wonderful singing since Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Theodora. She is at the height of her powers and bound us in a spell as she sang her entrance aria: moving, technically perfect and with a wonderful softness and poignancy. She caught the changing emotions of the duet with Talbot (one I’ve always found quite tedious until now) unerringly and her final scene was a gorgeous piece of singing. I remember one cadenza when she went up and down a scale with complete security and absolute control of the sound – fining it down and building it up, that was complete perfection. There were colourings that reminded by of Callas because they had the same dramatic truth behind them. I’m a big fan of Janet Baker’s recording but for me DiDonato surpassed it because she struck me as having an even wider range of emotion and a very different musical conception of the role – the tempo for the cabaletta in the last scene slower, less angry, even more intense, the first aria freer, more open. This was one of the great musical performances that I’ve seen.

Carmen Gianattasio has fewer opportunities as Elizabeth but she created a frustrated, nasty character, desperately pawing at Leicester’s flesh. She conveyed the suspicion and arrogance of the queen and was also blackly funny. You could almost see the sparks between her and DiDonato in the confrontation scene – a beautiful piece of directing. And she sang really well also. Can we have some more Donizetti for her please? She’d be brilliant in Roberto Devereux.

Ismael Jordi in his debut was a late-ish replacement but he was very, very good indeed as Leicester. It’s a nice, light voice and a charming personality. He sang his arias and did the duets really well and I hope he’ll be back. He’d be a super Duke of Mantua, Ernesto or Nemorino.

Matthew Rose was, predictably, excellent as Talbot. Jeremy Carpenter was rather anonymous as Cecil. I remember Alan Opie making a lot more of it at ENO. Kathleen Wilkinson was a strong, concerned, committed Anna.

Bertrand de Billy conducted. It’s not always easy to tell how far the tempi were his or his principals. They struck me as fast and furious early on, becoming musch more langourous in the final scene. They worked. Orchestra and chorus followed gamely.

It’s been a good summer at the ROH. With Mattila in Ariadne, Kaufmann and Opolais in Manon Lescaut and DiDonato and colleagues in this, it’s hard to imagine higher musical standards and they’ve been matched by thoughtful, compelling productions. It’s been a great couple of weeks. I hope it continues and that Kasper Holten doesn’t let the critics grind him down.

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One Response to “Maria Stuarda – Were the critics at the same show?”

  1. dehggial July 17, 2014 at 8:44 pm #

    Hi there. Very much in agreement with you about everything (I’ve my own review of it but you’re way more knowledgeable about Maria Stuarda so hats off to you, glad I found your post). I was completely puzzled about how this production could have created such a brouhaha. There’s nothing wrong with it. Must be that these days English critics build buzz around productions by writing hysterical reviews.

    Most of all I was happy to see I wasn’t the only one completely in awe at that up/down cadenza JDD did in act I.

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