Archive for July, 2014|Monthly archive page

Tallis By Triptych

In Classical Music, Review on July 31, 2014 at 3:46 pm

Review: Thomas Tallis (Wanamaker Theatre, Sunday 27 July 2014)

Thomas Tallis/Dr Dee – Brendan O’Hea
Henry VIII/Priest – Simon Harrison
Elizabeth I/Queen Catherine/Mrs Prest – Susie Trayling

Kirsty Hopkins (Soprano)
Alexandra Kidgell (Soprano)
William Purefoy (Countertenor)
Jeremy Budd (Tenor)
Tom Raskin (Tenor)
Ben Davies (Bass)

Director – Adele Thomas
Designer – Hannah Clark

Jessica Swale (Playwright)

The Wanamaker Theatre is making a name for itself in terms of some original productions.

Earlier this year I enjoyed their production of Cavalli’s L’Ormindo and I will be returning to listen to Trevor Pinnock celebrate the life of JS and CPE Bach in a few weeks and next year a dramatization of the life of Farinelli.

On this occasion, playwright Jessica Swale teamed up with members of The Sixteen to recount the life of Thomas Tallis. Almost like a triptych, Swale recounted his life under four Tudor monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Elizabeth I. For each he wrote music that underlined their own beliefs in the role of music in religion and court.

But incredibly little is known of the man himself and Swale’s play combined – at times fanciful – theatre and Tallis’ music. Although economically done, there were moments of real magic. The realization of Edward VI’s single melody religious music was smartly done using the theatre’s own corridors for example. The end, with its evocation of the crucifixation, was also atmospheric and only slightly ruined – for me at least – by the appearance of someone more suited to Aladdin that Elizabethan England. The strange juxtaposition of period costume and anonymous soldiers in modern garb jarred slightly and I can only imagine was due to limited budget and the fact that halberds are slightly too dangerous to carry in such an enclosed space.

As we know so little about Tallis, Brendan O’Hea’s portrayal was both confident and assured but it was Simon Harrison who held the stage more brightly, bringing a tense and sensual allure to Henry VII and an almost righteous anger to the Priest of Waltham Abbey.

Sadly, the handling of the music was, ultimately, less than effective. A shaky start exposed how difficult Tallis’ music is to perform with both fluidity and grace, and in the very dry acoustic of this theatre the music suffered. Also I think too much emphasis was placed on fully integrating the music into the drama, using the stage and spaces of the theatre simply because they were. Perhaps it would be been more effective to have increased the number of singers and positioned them in the gallery space above the stage? From there they could still have provided the much-needed commentary to stich the play together but also more importantly provided much needed vocal opulence and depth. Additionally, more attention was needed with regards to dynamics and shaping Tallis’ lines and while the selections were varied, they never felt truly representative of Tallis’ prodigious talent.

And also interestingly, no mention of Tallis’ seminal relationship with Wiliam Byrd.

By the end, Swales’ Thomas Tallis felt unfinished. Despite occasional moments, this felt more like a canter through Tudor history than the exposition of one of the period’s greatest composers.


Welsh Exodus

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on July 27, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Review – Moses und Aron (Welsh National Opera, Covent Garden, Saturday 26 July 2014)

Moses – John Tomlinson
Aron – Rainer Trost

Chorus & Extra Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

Directors – Jossi Wieler & Sergio Morabito
Revival Director – Jörg Behr
Lighting Designer – Tim Mitchell

Lothar Koenigs (Conductor)

I never get to Cardiff enough to see Welsh National Opera – lamentably I didn’t see their Tudors productions – so it was good news that they have struck a deal to bring one of their productions to Covent Garden.

I hope that the partnership with the Royal Opera House continues and it was a bold choice to bring Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron to London.

Incomplete and originally conceived as an oratorio, Moses und Aron was composed in twelve-tone technique, a system invented by Schoenberg as a personal resolution to the move towards atonality. However while some people are put off by the mere thought of twelve-tone music, Schoenberg’s opera is a remarkable work.

Schoenberg was not an instinctive opera composer and many think that dodecaphony lends itself more to music of intellectual vigour than an emotional response.

This performance of Moses und Aron helped disperse this belief slightly.

The Second Act – and particularly the opening with its contrapuntal intricacy – is both dramatic and musically impressive. Personally – and I don’t only mean in this production – the infamous “orgy” scene could have done with a bit of a trim in the original score, but the desolation of the ending holds a tantalizing promise of what Schoenberg might have had in his head for the final act.

However it isn’t Moses who has the most exciting music. It’s Aron. And Rainer Trost found a lyricism in the vocal line, and at times it seemed drew an almost deliberate parallel with the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions. Despite a slight strain at the top of his range – and I believe this has more to do with Schoenberg’s ‘unsympathetic ear’ when it comes to vocal writing – there was a purity of tone and an eloquence and clear sense of diction in Trost’s performance that was mesmerizing.

As Moses, John Tomlinson inhabited the role, creating a real sense of Moses as a person. Even when not singing, he dominated the stage – from before the music started in fact. On occasion slipping more into speech than the vocal line required, there was no denying the power of Tomlinson’s performance. And the pathos he brought to the closing scene was incredibly powerful.

Of the multitude of smaller roles, Elizabeth Atherton stood out with a clear bright soprano both as the Young Maiden, and in the Second Act as one of the quartet of Naked Virgins.

In the pit, Lothar Koenigs shone a light not only of the lyricism but also the sensuousness of much of the music. Where some conductors might have labored the twelve-note row in an attempt to being a sense of inner architecture to the music, Koenigs’ interpretation focused on the entire sweep of the two acts. And the WNO Orchestra responded with some very fine playing. Under his baton, a real sense of transparency was maintained throughout, and the players drew out the wide-range of colours and details within Schoenberg’s score.

But as in Thebans recently at English National Opera, it was the WNO Chorus who were the real triumph of the evening, performing with a confidence and clarity that was incredible.

The production was a mixed experience. I struggle with the concept of any production starting with an open set. Here – with John Tomlinson standing at a window – it seemed far too long. So great was the time between his appearance and the music starting that any dramatic impact was lost.

The one-set-fits-all approach can work – and it almost did here. However, with current events in Gaza, the idea that the opera opened in a room more destined for peace negotiations was slightly unsettling.

But it was in the Second Act that the production came undone. Clearly it’s always difficult to realize something like an orgy on stage – although McVicar manages it quite well in Rigoletto – but here any sense of the destruction of law and order, of licentiousness, was lost with Wieler and Morabito’s idea of having the chorus watch an imaginary film. It wasn’t so much the idea but rather it was too static for too long – again like Tomlinson’s appearance at the beginning of the opera. However, what made matters worse was having the chorus – and I wonder how it was sold to them in rehearsals – indulge in acts of sexual depravity which – quite frankly – was more akin to walking in on your parents having sex. And potentially with the neighbours. Excruciating.

At the precise moment I wished Schoenberg has kept to his original intention of making it an oratorio.

However despite the weakness of the production itself, the daring of bringing this opera to the stage, and the level of music making both in the pit, among the soloists and in the chorus was a triumph.

Sadly I think it is too much to ask for Moses und Aron to remain in WNO’s repertory except perhaps if they revive it with the complete Third Act as composed by Zoltán Kocsis?

Well worth a personal exodus to Cardiff for that.

When the Rose is Faded …

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on July 23, 2014 at 11:11 am

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Prom 6, Tuesday 22 July 2014)

Der Marschallin – Kate Royal
Octavian – Tara Erraught
Baron Ochs – Franz Hawlata
Sophie – Louise Alder

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Robin Ticciati (Conductor)

Memory may still dwell on – to quote Walter de la Mer.

Perhaps it was too much to expect three near perfect performances of Der Rosenkavalier in a row. If Germany can score seven goals in a game, why can’t we score a hat-trick with Strauss’ most perfect opera?

But after incredibly memorable performances in London and Birmingham it was seemingly too much to ask for a perfect – or at least passable – Rosenkavalier at the Proms.

Perhaps something got lost in translation on the road from East Sussex, but despite the well-fuelled controversy of the first night reviews, Glyndebourne’s Rosenkavalier is a pale shadow of this opera’s true glory.

I am not sure the semi staging – raised above the orchestra – helped matters but then again Richard Jones over-used vocabulary – fussy and at times crowded and distracting – didn’t either. Staging operas at the Proms – as witnessed last year by Barenboim’s Ring – need not be trial by error as was the case here. Perhaps Glyndeborne should have settled for a concert version of Der Rosenkavalier or perhaps chosen Rinaldo, more suited to the ambition they tried to deliver.

And personally I think that on the whole, this was a miscast Rosenkavalier.

Of the three women – and I am sure no one will agree with me – Kate Royal’s Marschallin was the weakest musically. To debut as the Marschallin is daunting enough but I am not sure that this is a role suited to her voice. That is not to say that Ms Royal is not an accomplished soprano – just not in possession of the temperament, insight or specific technique required for this incredibly challenging role.

It requires not only incredible technique but also the ability to find the nuances of light and shade in the music that Strauss wrote for the greatest of his heroines. The Albert Hall might be an unforgiving acoustic but there was – to my ear – a discernable and distracting ‘beat’ in Royal’s voice and a harshness where there should have been warmth and depth of tone. Often as the vocal line soared above the stave, she snatched at the highest notes and she delivered rather than interpreted the words she was singing.

Tara Erraught as Octavian was bright – almost brittle – in her singing. No amount of thigh slapping could hide the fact that again this was more about singing the right notes over interpreting the role. With a tendency to too much vibrato in the higher reaches of her voice, again there as a lack of – dare I say it – meat on her vocal bones.

Both Sophie and Baron Ochs were replaced for this performance. Franz Hawlata – a magnificent Baron in Birmingham – made the greatest impression in the leading roles although he also seemed somewhat lost on the stage and sometimes stuggled to be heard above the orchestra.

Louise Adler replaced Teodora Gheoghiu and clearly has a promising career ahead of her. Seemingly a recent graduate of the Royal College of Music International Opera School and the inaugural Kir Te Kanawa Scholar, if this was her debut it was a promising one as she demonstrated a natural affinity with the role of Sophie. She capably negotiated the soaring lines – despite a slight hint of strain and steeliness – with confidence. The Presentation Scene was particularly affecting but also threw up in contrast that Erraught’s voice lacked much needed warmth.

The remaining members of the ensemble performed their roles with confidence if not – with the exception of strong performances by Andrej Dunaev as the Italian Singer and the Valzacchi of Christopher Gillett’s – clarity.

Yet if the singing was below par then Robin Ticciati’s direction ‘below stage’ was also disappointing. The London Philharmonic Orchestra produced some wonderful but inflexible and colourless playing under his baton. There were no braying horns or transparency in the woodwind and the strings didn’t play with the much needed Straussian sheen. But most noticeably, there was a lack of two things. First, ebb and flow – most noticeably in the Marschallin’s First Act monologue and subsequent closing duet with Octavian as well as in the Presentation Scene. In the latter scene, it’s not enough to rallentando simply into the forte before the Presentation. Indeed, Ticciati’s conducting didn’t allow the conversational nature of Strauss’ music – so critical in this opera – to come through. And the second missing element, just as critical, was swagger. This opera needs swagger. And it was missing.

Again perhaps the transitions to a stage at the Royal Albert Hall had a marked effect on the overall production, but singer-for-singer, this was a pallid Rosenkavalier.

Northern Twilight

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 13, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Review – Götterdämmerung (Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 12 July 2014)

First Norn – Fiona Kimm
Second Norn – Heather Shipp
Third Norn – Lee Bisset
Brünnhilde – Alwyn Mellor
Siegfried – Mati Turi
Hagen – Mats Almgren
Gunter – Eric Greene
Gutrune – Orla Boylan
Waltraute – Susan Bickley
Alberich – Jo Pohlheim
Woglinde – Katherine Broderick
Wellgunde – Madeline Shaw
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle

Vocal Consultants – Dame Anne Evans & Sir John Tomlinson

Chorus of Opera North
Orchestra of Opera North

Concert Staging & Design Concept – Peter Mumford
Lighting & Projection Designer – Peter Mumford

Richard Farnes (Conductor)

The success of Opera North’s Ring cycle cannot be overestimated either in terms of ambition and vision but also – ultimately – artistic standards.

It’s to the Company’s credit and determination that they’ve delivered this cycle despite the initial media and public reservations and in a tough economic climate. And artistically, overall it has been a success.

What Ring cycle doesn’t have its weak links or moments of disappointment?

An incredible Das Rheingold was followed by a more disappointing Die Walküre and Siegfried but the final performance of Götterdämmerung in Leeds dissipated any previous concerns with playing and singing that was in the main superlative.

And superlative is the adjective best applied to the incredible playing of the Orchestra of Opera North.

Richard Farnes inspired some of the most luminous and rich playing I’ve heard in any Ring cycle. Not only was there a depth and volume to the strings but Farnes marshalled them with utter precision, and they responded accordingly to the ebb and flow of Wagner’s music. Wind and brass – from the opening chords – played with complete confidence, balancing the warmth of the strings with a bloom and – as required – piquancy that reverberated around the hall. And the percussion was every bit as committed. Never have the timpani beats, reminding the audience of Fafner and Fasolt, sounded so forbidding.

And as well as providing incredible support to the singers, the orchestra was very much part of the unfolding drama. From Siegfried’s journey down the Rhine to his devastating Funeral March, the orchestra provided an additional narrative of timbres and colours.

And in the podium, Farnes demonstrated a grip of the music and it’s overall architecture as he had in Siegfried. He had the sweep of the music firmly in his hands but didn’t allow it to swamp the finer details of Wagner’s score. While his departure from Opera North might be a loss to the Company itself, I sincerely hope that he will now be seen in other opera houses – and especially in Germany – where I think his talent and musicianship will be most welcome.

Of the singers, Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde was inevitably the focus of everyone’s attention. And rightly so. Following her appearance as Sieglinde in Opera North’s Walküre you have to wonder why Ms Mellor wasn’t cast as Wotan’s daughter for the entire cycle?

It was a very accomplished interpretation and performance. And I separate those two elements deliberately. Technically, apart from the occasional snatched note at the top of her range, Ms Mellor demonstrated that she has the heft and stamina for the role. And by stamina I don’t only mean that she can rise above the orchestra as required, but until the very end she demonstrated the ability to scale her voice right down. I always think it is a test of any Brünnhilde how she sings “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!”. The Immolation scene isn’t only one of volume, and this Brünnhilde showed that as well as providing the sheer volume, in the more reflective moments she could similarly project her vocal authority with eloquence. And in terms of interpretation, Ms Mellor revealed both the daughter of Wotan and betrayed wife of Siegfried. There was a convincing vulnerability to her characterisation, particularly at the beginning of the Second Act. But as a scorned woman she quickly revealed a steely determination before ending the opera once again as the daughter of a God – wise, forgiving and ultimately resolved to her fate.

And while Alwyn Mellor’s Brünnhilde – as with all Brünnhilde’s – will always be an evolving interpretation, her performance in Götterdämmerung suggests that she has it within her grasp to be a leading Brünnhilde.

I shall be looking out for her on stage in the future and I sincerely hope that Opera North have contracted her as all three Brünnhilde’s for their complete cycles in 2016. Indeed I hope one day to hear her as Isolde.

Mati Turi was pronounced slightly indisposed before the performance began. After my concerns about his pacing in Siegfried, clearly a solid technique helped him deliver a convincing performance in this final opera. If his singing felt was slightly ‘covered’ and less than heroic at times, it remained elegantly fluid and his narration in the Third Act was well nuanced and intelligently sung.

As Brünnhilde’s sister, Susan Bickley made for a totally convincing Waltraute. Having seen her most recently as Eduige in Rodelinda and Jocasta in Thebans, she brought her vast experience to bear on this small, yet pivotal, role. For a moment I almost thought she was about to convince Brünnhilde to return to Valhalla and thereby rob us of the rest of the evening. Fortunately they stuck to Wagner’s plan.

The three Rhinemaidens delivered some of the finest ensemble singing in these roles I’ve heard. Their voices remained distinct but melded beautifully, each displaying a keen ear in terms shaping their phrasing. And similarly Lee Bisset – an impressive Freia – returned as a vocally nuanced and confident Third Norn. I do wonder why we don’t hear her more in London?

Of the remaining roles, it was Alberich and his son Hagen who delivered the most convincing performances. In the dream scene, Jo Pohlheim instantly reminded us why he made such an impact in Siegfried. In signature black gloves, his resonant and darkly hued bass was matched by his acting ability. And like father like son in terms of Mats Almgren’s Hagen. The intonation and diction problems that affected his Fafner were nowhere to be seen in his performance as the Gibichung’s half-brother, sung with a malevolent and confident eloquence.

The Chorus of Opera North gave electrifying performances in the Second Act – diction clear, singing forceful yet clean and distinct.

As in her portrayal of Senta for ENO, I found Orla Boylan’s Gutrune rather hard-toned vocally. She has the heft and despite a tendency for her voice to spread at the top of her range, the technique but the edge in her voice diminishes any sense of gleam or warmth. But there was no doubting the passion and musicianship she invested in the role especially after Siegfried’s death. However, as her brother, Eric Greene’s Gunter was disappointing – vocally occluded and at times technically and musically strained.

Yet the sum of this Götterdämmerung’s parts outweighed its small disadvantages, making for a thrilling evening and fitting end to this ambitious project. And it seemed right and proper that Farnes and his incredible players received the loudest cheer and ovation at the end if it all.

Noises Off?

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on July 7, 2014 at 6:12 pm

Opera – good, bad and indifferent – probably solicits the most emotional response from anyone attending a concert. Girls – and probably more than a few boys – may cry and swoon at pop concerts but I think that has more to do with the performer’s six pack than their musical talent.

In the classical world, opera-goers seem more unable than most to restrain their emotions. And that was more than evident at the first night of Maria Stuarda at Covent Garden when there was booing.

A lot of it.

It was squarely aimed at the directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. And while booing has been heard before at Covent Garden, according to some it was ‘louder’ and ‘more prolonged’ than that for Aida in 1984.

And Saturday night’s episode has – since there was no social media in the 80s – set Twitter aflame.

I admit, here and now, I thought the production well and truly ‘sucked’. It undermined the incredible musicianship displayed both on the stage and in the pit. In fact I would go so far as to say that Leiser and Caurier made a blatant mockery of Donizetti’s music and potentially the singers.

But I didn’t boo. I admit, by the end I was sorely (sorely) tempted. I didn’t. But I didn’t clap the production team either – much to the shock of the people to my left and right. It seems you can’t win in some cases as they disdainfully glared at me.

So the debate has raged on about whether booing is right or wrong.

So which is it?

Booing – and I believe hissing and tapping in earlier centuries – has been a part of audience reaction since people first congregated to hear or watch performers. It happens in concert halls, arenas and stadiums.

And yes in the opera house.

In fact in some houses – like La Scala – it had less to do with productions or badly performing singers than with supporters of particular singers undermining a rival performer on stage. And despite the best intentions of La Scala’s new Intendant, it is set to continue.

But booing isn’t the only noise that is emitted by the over-emotional opera-goer. A night at the opera can sometimes be an aural assault course in completely the wrong way.

For me, there is something much more annoying than booing. Indeed so insidious as to ruin a performance. It’s that moment when, even before the last note has died away, someone erupts with shouts of “bravo”, or “brava” or “bravi”.

On Saturday night, one person could barely restrain himself, yelling “brava” at the top of their lungs almost before the singer had closed their mouth.

I don’t want to strangle someone’s ability to express how the music has made them feel but do they really have to so selfishly ruin ‘the moment’? Can’t they wait just that extra millisecond and add their loudly voiced opinion over the applause?

No. Clearly not. It’s not only selfish. It’s rude.

Clearly talking – and is it me or is talking during performances getting more pronounced? – is a no-no. And while you can’t fault someone for turning the pages of a programme, the unwrapping of sweets is another bane of the opera and concert-goer.

One day I fully expect someone to unwrap a Pret-A-Manger sandwich.

So if we are to debate booing then we need to talk about all the noises made by those who go to the opera.

Booing is part of the same audience vocabulary – as much as clapping, stamping their feet, cheering or in fact rising from their seats.

And if I may venture – as valid.

I’ve nothing against booing. As I said, I didn’t do it on Saturday and I doubt I will ever do so. But I don’t shout “bravo” or stamp my feet either.

But I respect that everyone has the right to express an opinion. If you have invested the time and the emotion during an opera and feel at the end as short-changed as others feel elated, then why shouldn’t you express that emotion? It might make those around you uncomfortable or even angry.

But ultimately, hasn’t the performance achieved its aim. It has elicited a response. And by doing so, that response is as valid as clapping or cheering. As crying or laughing.

I don’t expect everyone will agree with my position on this and some might say that I’m sitting on the veritable fence.

But I sincerely believe you can’t have one without the others.

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself – did the booing ruin the performance for me?

In my case, not as much as Leiser and Caurier did. Nor as much the man who shouted “brava”. And at least those who booed had the courtesy to wait until the end.

And while we’re at it, I didn’t hear any cheering for Leiser or Caurier either.

Vil Bastarda

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Uncategorized on July 6, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Maria Stuarda (Royal Opera House, Saturday 4 July 2014)

Maria Stuarda – Joyce DiDonato
Elisabetta I – Carmen Giannattasio
Giorgio Talbot – Matthew Rose
Guigliemo Cecil – Jeremy Carpenter
Roberto, Conte di Leicester – Ismael Jordi
Anna Kennedy – Kathleen Wilkinson
Executioner – Peter Dineen

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Directors – Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier
Set Designs – Christian Fenouillat
Costume Designs – Agostino Cavalca
Lighting Design – Christophe Forey

Bertrand de Billy (Conductor)

Hopefully this production will be best remembered for the quality of the singing and the interaction between the main protagonists rather than the – at times questionable – production.

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda seems to be growing in popularity. I admit I never saw the Met Production nor that of WNO, but it’s easy to see why. Inspired by the story-that-never-happened, he wrote some incredibly beautiful music for the two key protagonists.

And in those two protagonists – Elisabetta I and Maria Stuarda – Covent Garden had cast two incredible soloists and in spite of some first night nerves, both Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Giannattasio shone.

For Elisabetta, Donizetti wrote some of his most unforgiving music – not technically but emotionally. There is little warmth in her music, not even when she shrewishly begs for Leicester’s affections. It’s a skillfully penned musical portrait of that most famous Queen.

And Ms Giannattasio’s performance – despite her Blackadder-inspired gown – was equally matched in her performance. Exuding musical authority, there is a keen – almost steely – edge to her voice that is coupled a secure and natural technique. In both Ah! Quando all’ ara scorgemi and through to her exit after a magnificent Ah! dal cielo discenda un raggio, she displayed a notable control of the vocal line. This was finely matched by an equality of tone and balance throughout her range combined with a musically intelligent use of ornamentation. It’s no surprise that the audience was so appreciative as she stormed out. Her return for her confrontation with Leicester and closing duet was equally engaging even if de Billy drove the music slightly too hard for me.

As her nemesis, Joyce DiDonato was the perfect foil. Vocally – and again I put this down to first night nerves – it took a while for Ms DiDonato to settle but as I have said on countless, countless occasions, Joyce DiDonato has incredible natural talent. At her disposal she has a vocal armoury that is securely grounded on formidable technique. And coupled with this is a musical intelligence that enables her to create a character that is fully fleshed out.

And it all came together (almost) perfectly on opening night as she gave her second portrayal of the doomed Queen of Scotland.

From the opening phrase of Oh nube! che lieve per l’aria ti aggiri Ms DiDonato portrayed a Queen conflicted, confident and ultimately resigned to her fate. And if her opening cavatina, gave the audience what they have always expected from her in the past, it was her performance in the ensuing sextet that took Ms DiDonato performance to new heights.

This was the moment audiences have always looked forward to. It might not have happened in history, but Donizetti creates one of the great moments in bel canto opera.

The vocal dignity of Morta al mondo, e morta al trono was genuinely reflected as she implored Elisabetta for mercy. And it made the English queen’s reaction all the more shocking and Giannattasio’s Va, lo chiedi, o sciagurata more thrilling.

From here, the inevitability of Maria Stuarda’s condemnation of Elisabetta – Profanato è il soglio inglese,
Vil bastarda, dal tuo piè! – was inevitable. And de Billy remorselessly drove the music to its conclusion. No wonder the King and censors were perturbed by this opera. It wasn’t only the libretto they had fears of. It was the force of Donizetti’s music at this point.

But if Joyce DiDonato displayed Maria’s mettle in this sextet it was in the final Act that she displayed her humanity.

Again, Donizetti wrote some of his most powerful music for this heroine. Quando di luce rosea was aching in the simplicity with which DiDonato sang it. Again her vocal control and the way she coloured the arching phrases was masterful.

As Donizetti drove us inexorably to the denouement, DiDonato rose to the occasion with – seemingly – no effort. Effortlessly soaring over the chorus in Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera il suono, the nobility of her last message to Elisabetta – D’un cor che muore reca il perdono – was mesmerizing.

But it was humility of Ah! se un giorno da queste ritorte that demonstrated that Joyce DiDonato is one of the great singers of our age.

Sadly Donizetti didn’t lavish such attention on the men in this opera. However they provided more than able support.

Of the three, it was Matthew Rose who proved the strongest man in the cast not only for the quality and assuredness of his singing, but for his ability to portray the conflict within the character itself. Jeremy Carpenter also ably portrayed Cecil although slightly more menace would have made him more three-dimensional.

I am afraid I was not as impressed by the Conte di Leicester of Ismael Jordi. Technically it was all there, indeed unlike some of his bel canto fellows, he can find the necessary dynamic contrasts required. But I found there was a slightly metallic and constantly strained quality to his voice, which didn’t enable any sense of light or dark in his singing.

In the pit – as I have mentioned – de Billy drove the music on occasion too hard for my liking, but there is no denying that he clearly had the entire sweep of the drama in his mind. And the orchestra played with finesse although – and perhaps because of how he drove the music forward – there were times when Donizetti’s scoring was lost.

If there was one thing of dubious parentage then it was the vision and direction of this production.

It certainly drew a response from the audience. There was boo-ing for Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. While this isn’t the place to discuss whether the actual act of booing is acceptable or not, I have to say that I spent most of the opera thinking what exactly had they been thinking.

Quite literally a ‘vil bastarda’.

There is no denying that the singers themselves acted their parts. And brilliantly. But I do have to wonder how much of this was the singers’ own work when the overall direction was so flawed.

I have no problem with modernity of interpretation, I have no problem with mixing old and new. I simply got the impression that Leiser and Caurier might have started with a good idea but promptly left it somewhere.

From the start the signs were not good. Before the opera actually started, they clumsily told the audience the ending. Why didn’t they use the overture to perhaps portray the events that led Maria Stuarda to be imprisoned in Fotheringay?

The opening chorus look deliberately dressed as caricatures of the Queen Mother, Kate Middleton and current sons and grandsons of the Queen. Perhaps Covent Garden had borrowed the outfits from ITV’s ‘drama’ The Palace? If so, it was a cheap shot rather than adding any resonance.

The over-exaggerated costume that they hindered Elisabetta with almost undermined the character herself had it not been for Giannattasio’s acting abilities. With echoes of Blackadder almost, the soprano seemed to spend more than a little time working out how to negotiate the stage. Every time the poor Queen sat down it looked like she was trying to park something not much smaller than a tank on a smaller lawn. And while we all know that Elizabeth was bald (and so too was Mary Stuart for that matter) it seemed like too easy a dramatic coup to make in the opening scene.

The scenes in prison initially seemed more promising. The use of projection was effective but wasn’t carried through and therefore a lack of variety – both in terms of lighting and setting – made for an incredibly lacklustre act with the only dramatic intensity – apart from the music – being Elisabetta throwing food and chair around the set.

The curtain – clearly venetian blinds – hinted at a sense of voyeurism that wasn’t realized until the closing scene and therefore any sense of dramatic impact – hinting that the audience was complicit in Maria Stuarda’s execution – was dulled.

The final scene itself suggested a scenario more usually associated with the execution of criminals in the USA. Visually powerful as it was – and I doubt it was any kind of political statement – it only succeeded in creating a sense of detachment that was out of sorts with the emotional weight of Donizetti’s music.

Maria Stuarda is not a difficult story to tell. It is a story of love, of fear and of power. But it’s also a story of identity.

Donizetti’s music might note have suffered due to the compelling and brilliant performances stage, but Leiser and Caurier simply demonstrated that they couldn’t tell the story.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac

(A love affair with music)

Gareth's Culture and Travel Blog

Sharing my cultural and travel experiences

The Oxford Culture Review

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it" - John Cage

The Passacaglia Test

The provision and purview of classical music

Peter Hoesing

...a musicologist examining diverse artistic media in critical perspective


Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera