Friday, February 12, 2016

The Passion of Maria Stuarda

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
(First time this season)
Metropolitan Opera
January 29, 2016

Two queens, one love interest
Photo credit: Met
Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda is one of those rare operas that is truly female driven. The opera is divided between the two principal women roles and their big face off ends up relegating all of the male players to little more than quaint adornment on the sidelines. This second of Donizetti’s three Tudor queens tells of the royal feminine ego, and the concomitant womanly will to power.

We got our first surprise of the evening before the conductor even took his place at the podium. The stage manager came out with an announcement that the star of the show, Sondra Radvanovsky, had been suffering from a cold. A shudder of horror rippled through the crowd. The disappointment was palpable. But, she would be singing anyway, which unleashed a sigh of uncertain relief into the hall. Still, I was worried that the Donizettian bel canto fireworks would come out muddled.

Maria's confession
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met 
Like her predecessor in Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda is disgraced by a disgraceful rival, only this time that rival is a woman, rather than a slimy husband. Even though the two storylines have many plot points in common, this is a very different queen. Maria Stuarda is different perhaps most of all in terms of her vocal characterization. Though the range of emotions she covers is not as vast as that of her soprano assoluta counterparts (in Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux), she nevertheless covers a great deal of emotional ground.

Maria Stuarda is the softer spoken cousin of the other two queens. Her range is on the piano or soft and silent side of things, the place where self-reflective meditation and ecstatic flights of spiritual elation take place: melancholic meanderings of the memory and mind. Her moral fortitude and religious conviction wins the day for her, no matter how dismal that day concludes. She is the one who comes out holding her head high. She is the one who maintains her elegance, who goes out with understated pride, who faces her fate in a conniption fit of pious mysticism. It is clear where Donizetti’s sympathies lay. He is on the side of the poor, unjustly deposed Catholic queen, it would seem.

Guarda: sui prati appare
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
When we are first introduced to her she is glowing with the satisfaction of being granted a stroll in the great outdoors with her aria, Guarda: sui prati appare. In this scene Sondra Radvanovsky was radiant. Her face was lit with joy and the music lifted along with her. She is calm and collected but also ineffably happy. She sings of nostalgia for a long lost past, but she is also confident in her present. She doesn’t let the melancholic moment get the best of her. But then the music shifts to sadness and she is overcome by the deeper existential portent of her situation as the political prisoner of her ruthless rival to the throne. And her vocal characterization changes accordingly. This is the stuff Donizetti’s brilliance is made of.

Enter Guglielmo, the Earl of Leicester (her love interest), and suddenly she grows confident again, yet, at the same time, waxes tender with affection for an old friend and for the warmth of human connection. In terms of the emotional palette of this sequence that consumes most of the second half of Act II, the best is yet to come. They are told that the queen is out walking in those same woods. Maria Stuarda’s initial reaction is dread and fear. Her first instinct is to flee, but she hesitates more than once, rethinks her instinct, and stands her ground. Cowardice does not become her. So she stands tall. The scene is a thrilling study of feminine instinct and conviction.

Elizabeth plays with fire
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich / New York Times
When they finally meet, Maria reluctantly but graciously deigns to lower herself before her cousin, her captor, her queen. Her vocal characterization is now docile, pious, respectful. The queen cannot contain herself and in a dramatic slowly building crescendo, she rises up like a wave and comes crashing down on poor Maria Stuarda, accusing her of having murdered her own husband and provoking what Radvanovsky played convincingly as an outburst of self-righteous rage. Her body language didn’t get all riled up, but her voice did. I was extremely impressed by the way Radvanovsky completely owned the moment through conveying all of her emotions in her voice. She was raw anger and rage but in her body she was self-possessed. It’s one of those operatic moments that sends tingles through your body when done right. And this performance was definitely in the sweet spot. Even if her voice struggled to break through her reported head cold, the resulting effects were right in line with both the character and the demands of scene. In fact, it’s hard to know whether the cracks in her voice were intentional or not. The rawness of the moment came through all the way.

Her big confrontation with Elizabeth was gripping. This is possibly one of the most intense series of insults ever uttered in an opera:

Figlia impura di Bolena,
Parli tu di disonore?
Meretrice indegna e oscena,
In te cada il mio rossore.
Profanato è il soglio inglese,
Vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!

It is also the dramatic turn point of the opera. While it seemed that the two women might try to get along for a moment, there is definitely no going back after Maria calls Elisabetta a bastard whore who spoils the English soil by merely standing on it. While there are many ways of delivering this scathing recitative, I appreciated the boiling yet composed rage of Radvanovsky, who rose up into the highest reaches of her range only for the big oscena climax of her tirade. Meretrice indegna oscena. Wow! Otherwise she only punctuated the beginning and the end of the passage. Her initial “No” emitted from her in the form of a chesty nearly spoken voice, as was the concluding “piè” of her “dal suo piè.”
Maria Stuarda's final prayer
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The inspired, passionate and despairing heart of Maria Stuarda came across in the final sequence of the opera. Her final prayer was incredibly moving, mystical rapture backed up by the chorus. This is what stands in the place of Anna Bolena’s famous madness aria.

Ascent to martyrdom
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
The final passage of the opera (Roberto! Roberto! Ascolta), as the heroine turns to face her death, is about the lofty heights to which the soul can climb. It’s profound musical experience even if subdued in pacing and in tone, though I think this is what largely makes it so special. The depth of feeling that the Queen of Scots expresses as she prepares for her ascent, to meet her maker, is almost otherworldly and Radvanovsky embodied it beautifully, with a feverish crescendo from pious softness to soaring rapture, particularly when it came to the repeat of the last line il flagello di un Dio punitor, also thanks to the faster tempi chosen by maetsro Riccardo Frizza. Here Sir David McVicar’s production stages that ascent as one that is decidedly dark. The heroine ascends to face her executioner though the extremes of piety she demonstrated throughout the piece leads you to believe that she is actually heading to a better place, beyond the treacherous dungeon depths of what she has apparently experienced for the last 18 long years. In her scarlet petticoat, she proclaims herself a martyr for the Catholic faith.

Sondra Radvanovsky was radiant as Maria Stuarda. Though she reportedly had a cold, she sure didn’t show it. She has a purity of sound coupled with controlled power. Even singing softly for some of her tender reflective moments she still completely filled the space of the Met. If this is Radvanovsky’s Maria Stuarda on an off day, I’m tempted to come back to catch her when she’s on.

Cecil persuades Elizabeth to get rid of Maria
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
I’ve heard it said that Elisabetta is the other half of Maria Stuarda’s soprano assoluta role. Together they form one masterful whole of great compositional breadth and invention. South African soprano Elza van den Heever under McVicar’s direction gave her Elisabetta an awkward manly, if not androgynous gait, which turns turns the character into a sort of limping monster, a grostesque that is only reinforced by the make up and costuming decisions implemented by John Macfarlane’s set and costume designs. We saw van Heever in this role back in 2012 and I remember her being even more captivating then. Here she was strong, she obviously squarely possesses the role, with two feet planted firmly on the ground, but I kept expecting her to sing louder, to show us even more vividly what she can do with this lady crazed by power, love and jealousy. And what a way to represent the visionary virginal queen of the English renaissance. The horror! For her it would seem that all politics are personal and entirely personally is the only way to take your realpolitik. Even better to be brusque about it.

Queen is not pleased with Roberto
Photo credit: Met
As to the gentlemen, in this opera they really have secondary roles but still here were cast brilliantly. Tenor Celso Albelo as Roberto, the Earl of Leicester, really came out strong for his last big number, Iniqui tutti. He was bright and round in the upper register though never strident and his instrument played off Radvanovsky’s beautifully in their duets together. It amounted to an impressive debut at the Met and I look forward to hearing more from him. Baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Guglielmo Cecil, Elizabeth’s secretary of state, very compellingly performed his peripheral male role. His booming deep baritone was lyrical and fluid, with a velvety charismatic sound that left me wanting more.

Devilish clowns entertain Elizabeth's court
 Photo credit: Met
Sir David McVicar’s production proceeds with an efficient economy. Opening on the deep blood red reception hall at court that is lost in the throes of a carnivalesque celebration, replete with acrobatic devils, sets us up for the deep crimson red of Maria Stuarda’s undergarments in the final scene that she strips down to before approaching her executioner. As is the case in his work for Anna Bolena, the scene changes fluidly from one to the next that keeps the action moving right along at an almost dreamlike pace, especially considering the largely subdued overall tone of this most mystical of Donizetti royal tragedies. All roads lead to the material renunciation of an apparently most spiritual regal personality.

Lui & Lei

To sign or not to sign the death warrant
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met

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