A scene "Maria Stuarda" with Matthew Polenzani as Leicester, Joshua Hopkins as Cecil, Elza van den Heever as Elisabetta, and Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Reviewed by James Karas
Maria Stuarda, Gaetano Donizetti’s 43rd opera, finally made it to the Met. Its first night at Milan’s La Scala was on December 30, 1835 and at Lincoln Centre on December 31, 2012. That is a long coffee break but the Met went all out to make up for lost time (I guess) by giving us a stellar cast and an impressive production directed by David McVicar under the baton Maurizio Benini.
In mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda and soprano Elza van den Heever as Elizabetta, the production has two outstanding vocal performers. Bass Matthew Rose is a superb Talbot with baritone Joshua Hopkins (Cecil) and tenor Matthew Polenzani (Leicester) right up there if not quite as successful in their roles.
Maria Stuarda presents the fictionalized relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots which ended with the latter having her head chopped off. Schiller added the fiction but the beautiful bel canto arias and ensemble pieces (as well as some stock music) are all from Donizetti.
Heever as Elizabeth dominates vocally the first part of the opera. She has an expressive and lustrous voice that soars above the others. As the first act progressed, her marvelous singing appeared incongruous with her physical movements. She waddled rather gracelessly and affected a manly, meaning awkward, gait. This lady needs lessons in walking gracefully, I thought, and why didn’t the director notice it. It turns out that the gait was intentional and McVicar spent some time teaching her how to achieve it. The result was not worth the effort.
The most powerful performance was delivered by DiDonato as the imprisoned queen who feels she is unjustly condemned. The final scene of the opera is simply extraordinary and DiDonato does not miss a beat. She sings Mary’s prayer for forgiveness and for Elizabeth to be forgiven with emotional depth and vocal majesty. Mary holds a rosary during the final scenes of the opera and her hands start shaking as if she were suffering from Parkinson’s disease. DiDonato never falters even in that small detail and it adds to her outstanding portrayal.
Bass Matthew Rose was the best of the male singers. He is a big man with a big voice and he sang with commanding resonance and made a very sympathetic Talbot. Joshua Hopkins was fine vocally but he played the elder statesman Cecil. Hopkins’ youthful features contrasted unfavorably with the bearded man he was playing. He looked like a young man dressed up awkwardly to play an older person in some amateur theatrical production.
Tenor Matthew Polenzani was correct in his singing and looked the part of a lover but he failed to convey much emotional depth. Perhaps he does not have any – I mean Leicester not Polenzani.
McVicar and Set and Costume Designer John Macfarlane start the opera with most of the cast wearing white clothes in front of a red backdrop. The second scene takes on darker tones as becomes the setting of a prison even though Mary is initially happy. From there we move to Mary’s apartment in Fotheringay Castle and finally to the scene of her execution. All very dramatic and well-staged except for Heever’s wobble.
Extended comments about Gary Halvorson, the Director for Cinema are unfortunately inevitable. This is the click-click man who thinks we are playing a video game instead of watching opera in a movie theatre. A couple of examples of his ineptness and stupidity will suffice. In one scene, Leicester is about to kiss Elizabeth. His lips are about to touch her chin just below her lip and Halvorson stays on until the last split second before he clicks away from it. Did we need to get that close to the “kiss” and then put up with the added moronic click away from it?
Maria gets close to Talbot during her confession scene. We can see every detail from a respectable distance and still maintain the context of where they are. Halvorson zeroes in on them and only when half of Maria’ face is hidden by Talbot’s costume, does he click away.
During the beautiful Hymn of Death, the stage is dimly lit and we have a dramatic view of the chorus. We just want to listen to the splendid singing. Not good enough for Halvorson. He pans the camera around, focuses on some members of the chorus and almost succeeds in making a pig’s breakfast of the scene. I closed my eyes for parts of it.
Let’s hope we will not have to wait for Halvorson to straighten up his act as long as it took for Maria Stuarda to reach the Met.____
Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti was shown Live in HD on January 19 and March23, 2013 at The Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 and other theatres across Canada. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events