Maria Stuarda is one of those operas for which I have difficulty imagining anyone working up a Regie treatment. It’s so grounded in the specific historical (sort of) story it’s drawn from that I have trouble picturing, say, the BDSM Maria Stuarda or the Claus Guth Maria Stuarda or the Maria Stuarda in which everyone lives in a Lego forest and wears wood-grain patterned body stockings. (However: by all means, bring it on!)
The Met’s production is in the same general conceptual area as the only other version I’ve seen live, that of the Houston Opera last spring. It evokes the late sixteenth century without being too literal about it. Act I is a vaguely Tudory looking hall, lit in blood red, with a platform in the middle that serves as something between a stage (there are two acrobats and a dude juggling torches among the courtiers in the first scene) and, later, a conference table. For the scene in the woods where we meet Mary for the first time, the hall goes up and the trees come down like bars in a cell. They’re bare and gray. Elizabeth is dressed by her attendants later on in a dark hall, and in Mary’s cell during Act II we get a backdrop covered in letters with her signature, in French (the actual Mary Stuart spent much of her youth in France and was fluent in French). Mary’s guilt is literally written on the wall, or hanging in the air, for the scene in which she and Talbot discuss her spiritual state. At the end, Mary’s attendant whips her black dress off, revealing a bright red shift beneath, and Mary walks up a long set of stairs toward the block and the executioner. Along with her dress off come her wig and veil – like Elizabeth’s, her real hair is gray and short. (I have limits with regard to how much I am willing to analyze the libretto for this opera so I will just say – well, flarp. Queens. Wigs. Not so different after all. Go read Schiller’s play.)
Seeing this opera again reinforced the impression I had last time that the final section, from the section with Mary in her cell onward, is a series of stacked climaxes that are intended to outdo one another but don’t, quite. Also, I like Mary’s music and Elizabeth’s, but it’s hard to get super-excited about some of the rest of it, which is a bad thing in the case of this performance, because the singers they’ve got in the other roles, Matthew Polenzani (Leicester), Matthew Rose (Talbot) and Joshua Hopkins (Cecil) are quite good. Leicester’s duets with Elizabeth, as well as the Elizabeth/Leicester and I think Cecil trio in the second part of the opera were well worth hearing. (And I’m glad they gave Leicester gray hair for this. He’s not a hot-blooded young tenory thing. He’s a hot-blooded middle-aged tenory thing, and somehow this makes him slightly more sympathetic. Do not ask me to explain why this is so. I think it’s because he really ought to know better, but he doesn’t.)
I was not initially sure what to make of Elza van den Heever’s Elizabeth. Van den Heever appears to be about seven feet tall, and stalks around with one hand on her hip – the impression is either that Elizabeth has a limp, or Elizabeth does not know how to walk in a dress. I am skeptical of both these propositions. (Sixteenth-century monarchs often posed for portraits with their hands on their hips – it was considered a pose of authority – but they did not walk around like that all the time as far as I know.) Also, for the confrontation scene where the two queens meet, she’s wearing this terrifying red number that is trousers but with a skirt over the top of it, slit so that you can see the trousers. I’m not sure I completely grokked the characterization, but I liked a lot of the singing – I thought Elizabeth’s very first aria, “ah, quando all’ara sorgemii” had some really fine moments of phrasing in it, for example.
I have heard Joyce DiDonato sing the role of Mary Stuart before, and I’m glad that I did, because I actually think that that previous time was slightly better than what I heard last night. Do not mistake me – this performance had moments in it that are exactly the kind of thing that you expect in a good performance from DiDonato. Mary’s first aria, “o nube che lieve,” has a section in it, just a few bars, where she is unaccompanied by the orchestra (I think it’s where she mentions looking back to her childhood in France, but I wasn’t reading the supertitles) that was beautiful – that effortless, floating, perfectly shaped sound that she can just hold in the air and do whatever she wants with. There was more of this in Mary’s duet with Leicester later on, and in the scene with Talbot that begins with “quando di luce rosea.” (I recently read someone use the phrase “rabid Joyce DiDonato fans” in connection with this production. I am one of those people. I got my fix last night.)
But the performance as a whole seemed to move in fits and starts. During the confrontation scene between the two queens (WHICH NEVER HAPPENED. I AM TELLING YOU THIS AS A PROFESSIONAL HISTORIAN. IT DID NOT HAPPEN. JUST, YOU KNOW, FYI) there was an extended moment after “è sempre la stessa” where I thought, oh, here it goes, it’s on now. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t off by any means. But it wasn’t on on. And that last section of that scene seemed oddly rushed. I’m used to a slower tempo there. But whatever.
And this was true throughout. Every time I thought it was going to take off, it didn’t, quite. It was good. It was very good. But it did not quite leave me as utterly rocked as the last time.
However. I will, uh, be back in the opera house on Saturday afternoon to hear it again, so I guess I’ll see what another night will bring.
(Update: about the performance of 1-19-13 here.)