The take home lesson of this DVD is that even though Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda is based on Schiller’s play Mary Stuart, the two works of art do not actually have all that much in common. Indeed, they are quite different. I am not sure that performing them GLEICHZEITIG is strictly necessary to get this point across, but I tell you one thing, it is an experience that one does not soon forget. In fact, my impulse is to state from the start that many a production of the Donizetti opera might well be improved by having the two queens meet in the park, insult one another in Italian and then start screaming at one another . . . in German. It gives it that added “am I high?” kind of ping! that your more conventional productions of bel canto operas often lack.
What this is is bits of Donizetti’s opera, and bits of Schiller’s play, arranged in such a way as to narrate the events with which both works are ostensibly concerned. It swaps back between the play, in spoken German, and the opera, in sung Italian. Sometimes, as in Mary’s confession scene, the dialog goes on in German but the orchestral/choral music is audible in the background. In the final scene, the German play literally breaks into the opera in the form of the character of young Mortimer (he’s in the play but not the opera) who comes crashing in in German while one of Maria’s arias is floating along in another room. The same performers are there throughout, although the singing is dubbed. Mary is sung by Joan Sutherland, Leicester by Luciano Pavarotti, and Elizabeth by Huguette Tourangeru. The singing is often quite nice. Tourangeru hits those deep velvety low notes in some of Elizabeth’s arias like a real pro, Pavarotti is heroic enough, and Sutherland – well, there’s a reason she’s known for this style of thing, isn’t there. I imagine that if this was recorded specifically for this DVD (I am not sure that it was) there would be a certain amount of added zing built into knowing that your audience is listening, but they are also waiting a little bit on the edge of the couch wondering at what point the singing stops and the yelling in German is going to begin again.
But lest I imply that I do not like Schiller, one thing that I really actually enjoyed about this was hearing the play performed – or at least bits of the play performed – in German. My German comprehension is far from perfect, but when I see the subtitles in English it helps with parsing, and I can understand it enough to get a sense of Schiller’s intense, weighted, precise language. It’s great, and I would love to actually see this play staged, in German (perhaps with supertitles!) so that I could experience the entire thing without these intermittent interruptions of Italian opera.
I mean, this really is the point here. The parts of Schiller’s play that they leave out, e.g. Mortimer’s account to Mary in Act I of his conversion to Catholicism, are often precisely the bits that Donizetti’s opera often leaves out (largely because I think it wouldn’t have passed the nineteenth-century Italian censors otherwise). Schiller’s handling of Catholicism and what he associates it with is consistently really interesting (once again: DON CARLOS DON CARLOS DON CARLOS) but I think it’s a little too interesting for a Donizetti opera. And as far as the the things that the two works have in common – e.g. Mary and Elizabeth both being powerful women negotiating this power in a world run by men – I will go so far as to say that Schiller’s play is a little bit more, ah, — well, fuck it, it’s more interesting. Schiller’s language and Donizetti’s librettist’s language are not just different languages in a literal sense; they’re different in other ways as well. And the music in the opera does not do quite enough to bring back in all the complexity that the libretto lacks. The surface of the story is the same in each case, but the subtexts are not. They are related, but they are not the same. It may be that this was precisely the point that this film’s director, Petr Weigl, was trying to make – but I am not sure.
So. Time to reread Schiller’s Mary Stuart! (Or perhaps I will grit my teeth and buy a German text . . . time to pull my socks up and be a big girl and read the original. Or try to.)