Maria Stuarda, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, January 2013Posted on 20 January 2013
Finally the Met have staged Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, an 1835 opera based on the play by Schiller written in 1800, where Mary Queen of Scots meets Elizabeth I of England. The meeting never took place, but the play makes for super drama, and the opera provides for some wonderful singing, with the two queens backed up and egged on by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, William Cecil, chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth, and George Talbot, English statesman and keeper of Mary Stuart.
In this tale it is Leicester, sung with great warmth by Matthew Polenzani, who brings the two queens together. His duets with both were very touching, as was his fury and dismay at Mary’s execution. Matthew Rose portrayed an avuncular Talbot whose prayerful duet with Mary in Act II came over very powerfully, and Joshua Hopkins sang Cecil with body language that bespoke great concern with State security (and remember that in real history Mary was caught out when the English secret service deciphered her coded messages).
As Elizabeth, the young South African soprano Elza van den Heever took the role seriously enough to shave her head, but the characterization she gave in Scene 1 made me think of a seventeen year old girl trying to impress and throw her weight around. Vocally she failed to command, though she improved in the later scenes. I found the characterization a bit puzzling because director David McVicar said he wanted the queens to portray the ages they would have been at the time. Fact: Elizabeth lived from 1533 to 1603, being queen from 1558, and Mary was born in 1542 and executed in 1587, so the imaginary first encounter would have been in about 1575 when Elizabeth was 42, and Mary 33.
The point where the opera really took off was when Joyce DiDonato appeared in Scene 2, and her soliloquy envying the clouds that can skim off to France was exquisitely delivered. As the English queen approached in a hunting party her concern was dramatic and palpable, and after their duet, her defiance, with its famous vil bastarda, was riveting. In Act II her prayer, delivered with huge sincerity, was a touching moment, and in her final lines to Cecil requesting that Elizabeth not be punished by remorse, her words floated on the air like birds on the wing singing of peace and reconciliation.
Maurizio Benini in the orchestra pit gave a lyrical intensity to Donizetti’s music, and this cinema screening suggests that David McVicar’s production, with set and costume designs by John Macfarlane, is very effective with a dramatic final moment as Mary climbs to the scaffold and the executioner awaits. Congratulations to the Met for producing the opera, and to Joyce DiDonato for such a convincing and beautifully sung Mary Stuart.