Mary Stuart / Houston Opera 4-21-12 (1)

This production is quite simple in visual terms. The stage is mostly black and bare, with a few pieces of scenery standing in for walls or pillars or whatnot that appear and disappear. In Act I Elizabeth has a podium/lectern/pulpit thing with stairs — there is a word for this object, but I cannot for the life of me think of it right now — and later on Mary has a sort of Death Podium, i.e. the same object as Elizabeth’s but made of iron bars. I thought that the Death Podium was going to reappear as a scaffold in Act III but I was wrong. In the last act we have a small platform, and later behind it a large cut-out cross toward which Mary is turned, in anticipation of her execution, as the opera ends. The costumes are historically appropriate, with some nice contrasts of color – Elizabeth in brilliant gold or yellow with the chorus in more subdued blues and grays, and Mary spending the last part of Act III in a blood red shift. The whole thing is simple, direct, and doesn’t get in the way.

There is also a large painting of what I am going to guess is the assumption of the Virgin Mary (I couldn’t see the top of the image from where I was) in front of which Elizabeth and Leicester have their argument in Act I over how you solve a problem like Maria and again in front of which Elizabeth later makes her decision to have Mary killed. There’s one obvious reference in this – this is a Catholic image of a figure named Mary on her way to heaven. But this is a Catholic devotional image – why does it appear so often not in association with Mary Stuart, but behind the Protestant Elizabeth? The historical Elizabeth made subtle use of elements of the iconography surrounding the Virgin Mary as part of her ‘Virgin Queen’ shtick. Elizabeth also faced the problem of what to do with Catholics and Catholicism in her newly Protestant realm. But that is not all that is at work here. There are different ways of reading this painting – Catholic devotional image if you’re a Catholic, representation of feared and distrusted Catholicism, or even idolatry, if you’re a Protestant. Mary and Elizabeth are each connected symbolically to this image, but in very different ways. There are different ways of understanding the painting; there are different ways of understanding Elizabeth and Mary. In the opera, the story turns on two competing (and religiously-colored) versions of who Elizabeth is and who Mary is and how to understand the conflict between the two queens. Mary and Elizabeth’s showdown at Fotheringhay is the dramatization of precisely this.

So, the painting gestures at the conflict in the opera about whose version of these events is right. It is also an echo of the thing with the two podiums – these ladies are very similar in some ways and very different in others.

But on to the rest of the production.

In terms of quality of musical performance this was very good. First of all. Katie Van Kooten (Elizabeth) is a singer to keep your eye out for. She sailed through Elizabeth’s coloratura with ease, sounded very nice while doing so and to the extent that this opera requires acting, the acting was there – she was every inch the 19th-century bel canto version of a sixteenth-century monarch. Eric Cutler (Leicester) had his moments. There are several sections of this opera where Leicester has the opportunity – or the obligation, depending on how you look at it — to hold one of those high ringing bel canto tenor notes, and this came off better in some instances than in others. This is one of those highly-wrought tormented tenor parts (Donizetti tormented tenor, which is slightly different from, say, Verdi tormented tenor) and Cutler certainly has the style of the thing.

Joyce DiDonato (Mary) was terrific. Mary’s gentle first aria in Act II was lovely in terms of control and those softly-turned little phrases – someone in the audience yelled “brava!” before she was quite done with it and while I think this could have waited three seconds, I certainly understood the impulse. (While I am talking about the audience. This was the noisiest audience I have been in in ages. Coughing, shuffling around, snapping water bottles, the works. The guy in front of me even turned his iPhone on during Act II to check the time. Jesus H. Christ, people, just sit still!) By Act III DiDonato was on. Between the sheer sound of that woman’s voice and the nail-you-to-the-wall technique — well, there were several points at which I stopped hearing the words and was just hearing music. And Donizetti certainly gives a singer like DiDonato the chance to show off her skills. There is one point towards the end of Act III when Mary expresses the hope that her death will bring peace to England and Scotland, where the vocal line drops to pianissimo, there is a complicated-sounding ornament, and then it just sails onward – wow. Mary and the chorus and the orchestra did not seem to be all quite in the same place for the first few bars of the prayer bit in 6/8 in Act III, but this is a tiny little thing.

And this performance answered any questions a person might have as to why they cast a mezzo as Mary. It works. Usually it’s the other way round – Elizabeth is the mezzo and Mary a soprano — but here they’ve flipped it. Van Kooten ends one of Elizabeth’s early arias (it’s the one that ends on “non sa” – I think it’s “quando all’ara scorgemi”) an octave up from where Shirley Verrett does on the recording of this that I last listened to, and there may have been a few other adjustments in both these parts — I don’t know the opera well enough to say. I’m tempted to guess that one argument for this choice is that it gives Mary a little more forcefulness because the sound has slightly more weight, but that is just a guess.

This production also made me realize a few things about this opera in dramatic terms, but that can probably wait until tomorrow.