Maria Stuarda, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, July 2014

In forty to fifty years time young audience members may take pride in saying they once saw Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda. She was sensational, and when it was over and the curtain rose to reveal her centre stage, the thunderous applause was followed by huge cheers for other cast members until the production team walked on to sustained booing.

Act I, Elizabeth and Leicester, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Act I, Elizabeth and Leicester, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

More on the production later, but the dull staging could not compete with the inspired singing and orchestral support under the baton of Bertrand de Billy. In Act I when Mary has yet to appear, Carmen Giannattasio’s superb Elizabeth already showed enormous beauty. After her aria Ah! dal cielo …, where she wishes guidance from heaven, the audience burst into spontaneous applause, and then came Ismael Jordi’s gripping Leicester, whose paean to the angelic beauty and soul of Mary (Si, Era d’amor l’immagine) was filled with gentle force and lyrical soft notes.

Mary dreams of freedom

Mary dreams of freedom

Act II, set in the hall outside Mary’s prison cell, briefly showed video projections of wildflowers and after Mary stood on a chair to sing O nube! the audience erupted into huge applause. The warmth of the singing contrasted with the heartless setting in which Elizabeth arrived to dine at a table on her own. With her back to Mary, now in a stunning blue dress, we witness the fictional scene in which the two queens meet. In the original Naples dress rehearsal fireworks ensued, after which the King cancelled the opera, but here the fireworks were entirely musical, with Elizabeth’s cold arrogance provoking Mary’s furious outburst and her heartfelt vil bastarda.

Elizabeth and Mary

The fictional meeting: Elizabeth and Mary

Act III saw brilliant coloratura work from Ms Giannattasio’s Elizabeth, with huge orchestral energy accompanying the glorious stretta between her, Leicester and Cecil (Jeremy Carpenter). In the final scene, Ms DiDonato contrasted Mary’s Act II fury with a sublimely tremulous quietude, and after Matthew Rose’s noble Talbot has assisted her final confession, reminding her to plead forgiveness for the Babington plot, her voice rose beautifully above the excellent chorus. Her sustained notes simply floated on the air making this a performance to treasure, and those who missed it ‘shall think themselves accursed they were not here’.

Cecil and Mary before execution

Cecil and Mary before execution

Pity the ending was so weak, with the orchestra ignoring the final bar repeats, and the venetian blind front drop continuing to descend after they had finished playing. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production had some interesting ideas: the juxtaposition of Agostino Cavalca’s modern costumes with elaborate sixteenth century designs for the queens, and I liked Christophe Forey’s lighting where Mary’s beautiful silhouette enlarged as she left the room, but the business with the axe was too much.

During the overture we saw it dismember a head from its body, and it reappeared several times in the hands of Cecil and Elizabeth before the denouement of Act III. We all know Mary Stuart’s fate, so the constant reminders are unnecessary. Forget the axe, but given the sixteenth century costume for Mary why not allow her the crimson petticoat she wore rather than grey and ivory that would show every bloodstain.

This is only the second time the ROH has produced Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (the first was a 1977 production by John Copley with costumes borrowed from the ENO), and it is surely not too late to try a different production with Joyce DiDonato. This thrilling bel canto opera deserves an equally thrilling staging.

Performances continue on various dates until July 18, including a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast on July 14 — for details click here.

One Response to “Maria Stuarda, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, July 2014”

  1. Jonathan says:

    I could not agree more. Musically a superb evening but slightly spoiled by such an ugly production. Artists of this stature deserve a better conceived and more thoughtful production as do the audience. Having said that what a privilege to hear such glorious singing from Ms DiDonata and Ms Giannattasio

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