Donizetti – Maria Stuarda / Metropolitan Opera 1-15-13

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.)

26 thoughts on “Donizetti – Maria Stuarda / Metropolitan Opera 1-15-13

    1. That’s the one with Edita Gruberova, right? I liked that one quite a lot. I’d say it’s more close to Regie than really textbook Regie, in the sense that the story seems more updated – and it’s still set in England – than turned inside out or radically changed. But it’s definitely out of the “look at the pretty Tudor costumes!” category.


  1. I could never resist a challenge. Here’s my Konzept for Maria Stuarda. It’s the 1980s in the wake of the bomb attack at the Conservative conference. Elizabeth, of course, Margret Thatcher. MS is a Bernadette Devlin like figure being secretly held at a British Army base. We don’t know whether MS was directly involved in the attack but the British Army CoS (Walsingham) wants to off MS to send the IRA one of those “everyone knows but no-one can prove it” messages so beloved by the British state. Other senior officials are appalled but eventually MT/ER decides (as she always did) on the violent route. A masked SAS soldier enters MS’ cell and offs her with a pistol bullet to the base of the skull.


    1. Well, I’d certainly go to see that! But I wonder if it’s possible to do Maria Stuarda in a way that isn’t specifically British history or British politics – if it would work in the same way that, say, the really abstracted nowhere, noplace versions of Mozart’s operas do.

      Also, Eliz as Margaret Thatcher! You would definitely push some buttons with that one . . . which maybe means that it ought to be tried, just for the hell of it 🙂


      1. Was watching seriously weirdly abstracted Mozart last night. It’s the M22 Ascanio in Alba. It’s all wonky androids and characters with apparently severe motor neuron disorders.


        1. I haven’t seen that one – if I didn’t have a significant chunk of it already, I’d be tempted to buy that whole huge M22 boxed set.

          Was the point of the androids/motor disorders clear in the production?


            1. I haven’t been able to get trhough more than about 40 minutes of that production. I mean… ick… I should try again I suppose. Meanwhile, I was think of Maria Stuarda perhaps as Ivana Trump?


              1. Now my curiosity is piqued – I’ll have to see if I can get ahold of it somehow (since it doesn’t seem to be a good candidate for investing in purchasing it).

                Stuarda as Ivana Trump, with all the associated glitz and gossip – it would certainly not be at odds with the theme in the Schiller play (that is also in the opera too, but a little less so) about how Elizabeth’s ministers and subordinates were paranoid that Mary despite being locked up seduced every man she came into contact with. If I were doing a Regie version of this opera, I would try to come up with a concept that really pushed that question of how much and what sort of power Mary actually had. (Thinking aloud now) Par for the course for a 19thc opera, she spends her time emoting rather than doing but the whole plot hinges on her possibly having done mysterious and bad things in the past and possibly doing them again in the future. She has to be relatively passive b/c she’s a bel canto nice girl but everyone in the opera is afraid that she isn’t.

                …perhaps there are great Regie possibilities with this opera after all. Maria Stuarda: screw the Tudors/Stuarts; this is an opera about power, agency/passivity and gender.


                1. Seems to me Schiller’s chief conflict isn’t MS vs ER but themselves vs the things the men around them project onto them. Lots of regie possibilities there, in the right hands.


  2. Be sure to wave at the cameras when they pan the audience. I’ll be looking for you! 🙂

    P.S. I have NEVER seen a Joyce DiDonato fan foaming at the mouth…


  3. @ stray – now I wish I’d brought my copy of the play with me. I think an entertaining challenge with a regie production would be coming up with something visual or spatial that got at that quality without too many direct references to the historical setting. I guess that could be the question: if Schiller is using this snippet of history to stage a play that is about plenty of things other than Elizabethan dynastic/confessional politics, is there a way to stage the opera that leaves out, or mostly leaves out, the historical bit and puts the weight much more on the gender/competing narratives of who the two central characters are/more abstract aspects of the story. Can we have Mary Stuart without Mary Stuart? (I’m guessing yes in theory, but drawing a blank as to how – but this is why I’m not an opera director.)


  4. I guess this is the effect of too much Clemenza, but Cecil reminds me a lot of Publio.
    And concerning the limp: van den Heever explained in the backstage interview of the broadcast that it was McVicar’s idea to have Elisabetta move this way (rather masculinely) instead of something more regal. I think it was one of the few bad things about this production (along with the “leaning dramatically on the table”, that Elisabetta seemed to be doing a lot), it got annoying/ridiculous pretty quickly…


    1. I can see the Cecil-Publio comparison: he’s the trusted advisor who gets to be the bottom vocal line for a lot of ensembles, but he doesn’t get much in the way of exciting drama (at least Publio gets “tardi, s’avvedi,” I guess, though it’s not exactly an aria that tends to bring the house down)

      Ah, so it was McVicar’s idea! I agree that it was kind of annoying – it seemed like just a little too much. I mean, that red dress/breeches combination outfit she gets for her scene where she meets Maria pretty much says it all in terms of Elizabeth looking masculine.

      Also: too much Clemenza? There is no such thing!


      1. That’s it 😀 And Cecil and Publio both spend a lot of time trying to make their monarchs execute some people, but only because they feel it necessary for the good of their countries, not because they have anything personal against them. (Or at least, Cecil saying “sad duty” rather than gloating over her fate when telling Maria about her death sentence, would suggest so, I think. With Publio, there’s the trio with Sesto and Vitellia, calling Sesto’s sentence “terrible, but just” and him “sventurato” when learning about his supposed fate.)

        Oh, the hunting dress… I thought nothing could be worse than Antonacci’s black leather costume from the 2008 Scala production, but this one gives it a run for its money.


          1. I have tickets for two; main cast and the Ensemble Studio performance. I may well see about a rush for the opening. Can’t have too much Clemenza (though I got a tweet from Rebecca Caine this morning – Clemenza di BORING)


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