On Friday, January 29th, 2016, I had the intense pleasure of seeing Donizetti's tragedia lirica in two acts, Maria Stuarda, at the Metropolitan Opera. It is a prime example of the 19th-century bel canto style, as the drama is completely embedded within the vocal line. That being said, even more pleasing than the elegantly simple and yet gorgeously dramatic production by David McVicar, was Sondra Radvanovsky's sumptuous vocal acrobatics and dramatic characterization of the tragic Scottish queen.
Sondra Radvanovsky is by now a Met veteran, but she actually started out as a graduate of their Lindemann Young Artist program. Apparently, they had at one point threatened to let her go from the program if she didn't learn to stop falsely darkening her already rich voice. Fortunately for her and us, the problem was corrected, and now, over twenty years later, she is singing all three of Donizetti's Tudor queens this season: Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, and Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux. This particular feat was made famous by Beverly Sills, but has not been attempted since. Unfortunately, I missed her Anna Bolena. But I was impressed by her Stuarda, and I am looking forward to her Elizabeth.
I saw her perform in two separate operas last season, which included her portrayal of Elisabeth in Verdi's Don Carlo, and was singularly impressed by the haunting, luxurious quality of her tone and vibrato, and the ease with which she expresses the finest high pianissimos to the most dramatic, gut-wrenching low fortes. I was taken by surprise by the sheer beauty of her instrument, and find it apt that many people compare the richness of her timbre to Maria Callas, as the two do indeed share a similarity of tone.
Friday's performance of Maria Stuarda, was only the Met's 9th performance of this opera, which starred Joyce Didonato in 2013. This year, Elza van den Heever plays Queen Elizabeth (Elisabetta). On Friday, she did a fine job of acting and singing, but I did not like the characterization of Queen Elizabeth, and I am not sure if the director or the singer is to blame in this case. Usually, it seems to be the director's call as to how a singer should portray a character. This opera definitely pits the two queens against one another, with Stuarda embodying goodness and Elizabeth representing evil, which is the only reason I can think of to portray Elizabeth as a completely loathsome creature: from the moment she emerged on stage, she came across as a crass, bumbling, arrogant, all-around detestable figure, which I didn't think was the best way to portray this complex character. Donizetti and Bardari (his librettist), included scenes that show Elizebeth's torment and ambiguity towards putting Stuarda to death - so I do not believe she should have been portrayed as totally loathsome. It would have been more powerful to portray Elizabeth as an equally strong, but flawed human being, just like Stuarda.
In the first act, Elizabeth is moved to tears by Stuarda's letter pleading for mercy. And yet, Friday night's characterization of Elizabeth portrayed an undignified bumbling buffoon, who pranced around onstage shifting her body weight dramatically back and forth between both legs, creating an unseemly wobble, and going around slapping her courtiers and jesters on the bum - behaviour that came across as entirely unbelievable for the dignified Queen of England, and especially the cold, calculating Virgin Queen we associate from history.
The opera, of course, does not present a completely realistic view of the actual story of Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth. First, it fabricates a love-triangle, which serves as a driving force of the opera's drama, between the two queens and the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, who was one of Elizabeth's favorite suitors in real life. The climax of the opera is its confrontation scene between the two queens, in which Mary ends up harshly insulting Elizabeth, calling her a bastard child of the whore Ann Boleyn. In fact, the two queens never even met in reality, even though Mary Stuart was held prisoner in England by Elizabeth for almost 20 years. The opera's last big deviation from historical accuracy is Stuarda's confession scene at the end of Act II, in which she admits to having encouraged what history calls the Babington Plot, which was the secret scheme to murder Elizabeth so that Mary could ascend the throne of England. In reality, Mary Stuart denied having plotted to kill Elizabeth, but she was executed for her perceived involvement in this plot on February 8, 1587.
Celso Albelo made his Met debut as Roberto, Earl of Leicester. Patrick Carfizzi played Cecil, Elizabeth's Secretary of State, and Kwangchul Youn sang the role of Talbot, Mary's guardian.
Before the curtain rose, an announcer walked to the center of the stage and asked for our indulgence, as Ms. Radvanovsky was suffering from a cold that night. Despite this, she sang very well. There were a few notes towards the end of the opera in which her voice seemed to give out slightly, but luckily, this actually served the drama of Mary's final excruciating hours. In all, it was a good performance, and highly worth experiencing.
Conductor of the night was Riccardo Frizza.