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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.

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  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] much anticipated Maria Stuarda with Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Giannattasio was musically beyond reproach but the audience – […]

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