Saturday, January 26, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Maria Stuarda?

Mary Stuart, ca. 1578
The background: Mary Stuart was indeed a problem. The Queen of Scots never stopped plotting to become Queen of England. The younger cousin of Queen Elizabeth I, Mary throughout her life contested Elizabeth's right to the English throne. Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife. Mary, like many Catholics, saw Henry's marriage to Anne as illegitimate since his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon had not been annulled by the Pope. And if the marriage was illegitimate, the child of that union was also illegitimate. In this Mary's religious devotion and her political ambitions dovetailed neatly.

But when the fit between ambition and devotion wasn't so neat, Mary didn't hesitate to set piety aside. She married the Earl of Bothwell in May 1567 just a week after his divorce, despite the fact that he was the chief suspect in the February murder of her second husband Henry, Lord Darnley. At the time of her marriage to Bothwell, Mary was pregnant, which suggests that she and her lover Bothwell conspired to get rid of the inconvenient Darnley. A month after this highly unpopular wedding, Mary was imprisoned by a group of rebellious Scottish lords. She was forced to abdicate and ultimately fled to England, apparently expecting to be aided by Elizabeth. Instead she was held under estate-arrest for two decades, until she was condemned to death for her support of the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Mary was executed on February 8, 1587.

The opera: Donizetti's opera Maria Stuarda (first performed 1834/35, and based on Friedrich Schiller's play Maria Stuart) imagines an emotionally volatile meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in the park at Fotheringay Castle, where Mary is being held prisoner—although there is no evidence that the two ever actually met in person. Still, it's an irresistible scene. Under Elizabeth's goading, Mary's initial contrition quickly turns venomous: "Figlia impura di Bolena, parli tu di disonore? Meretrice indegna e oscena, su te cada il mio rossore! Profanato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!" (Filthy daughter of Boleyn, you speak to me of dishonor? Unworthy and obscene whore, the shame is yours! The English throne is profaned by your foot, vile bastard!") As you might imagine, things go downhill for Mary pretty swiftly after this.

The production: Joyce DiDonato as Mary was the chief reason we went to see the Live in HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera on January 19. Not only was she in gorgeous voice, she embodied this complex, contradictory role with complete conviction. Every movement was imbued with meaning; every moment seemed freshly conceived. Even when director David McVicar gave her distracting, unnecessary business (a palsied shaking of her hands in Act II, which seemed excessive for a character in her mid-40s), DiDonato made it work.

Here is the confrontation scene from this production; Elza van den Heever is Elizabeth:

DiDonato's thoughtful, committed performance made Matthew Polenzani as Leicester, the man who attempts to mediate between Elizabeth and Mary, look a bit like a ham. He seemed to rely on stock gestures and generic characterization. In another production with other singers it might have been enough, but in the company of an artist of the caliber of DiDonato it wasn't sufficient.

Elizabeth I, ca. 1588
Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth gamely threw herself into her role. In one of the best moments in the production, at the beginning of the second act we see a shockingly wigless Elizabeth being dressed by her ladies-in-waiting; van den Heever famously shaved her head to heighten the effect of this moment. While van den Heever's big, unruly voice has a wide vibrato in its lower ranges, her top notes soar over the orchestra effortlessly.

Unfortunately, she was also given intrusive and unconvincing business by McVicar. Elizabeth is made to stomp about the stage in a decidedly unregal way. Van den Heever is a big woman, and perhaps McVicar wanted to heighten the contrast between Elizabeth and the diminutive, vulnerable Mary. This wasn't the way to do it.

McVicar also made the questionable choice to indicate that the second act happens ten years after the first. It allows him to contrast the younger and older queens; in particular, as he mentioned during an interview broadcast during intermission, during the intervening time Elizabeth has become the iconic Gloriana. (Not quite: Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, from which this sobriquet is taken, wasn't published until 1590.)

Not only does this ten-year gap contradict Giuseppe Bardari's libretto, it dissipates the dramatic energy. At the end of the first act Elizabeth, in a fury after being insulted, condemns Mary to death: "Nella scure che ti aspetta troverai la mia vendetta" (In the axe that awaits you, you will find my revenge). Mary responds, "Or guidatemi alla morte" (Lead me to death). And then when the curtain rises on the second act we're to understand that it's ten years later, Mary is still alive, and Elizabeth is still vacillating about signing her death warrant. It doesn't make sense.

The production design by John McFarlane was also problematic. The action took place on a large raised platform that was supposed to heighten our sense of the theatricality of the action; both queens are playing to a larger audience than just one another. But the platform required DiDonato and van den Heever to climb up and down stairs to make entrances and exits while wearing long, heavy dresses—it looked awkward. Also, the park at Fotheringay with its leafless trees looked more like King Lear's blasted heath, even though Mary sings about her joy in nature, the "fragrant and fair meadows" covered with flowers that surround her. McFarlane was clearly looking for a visual metaphor for Mary's withered hopes, but this choice was too obvious—the characters looked like they were stranded on a moonscape.

Finally, while Donizetti and Bardi created some highly effective scenes—the confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary, Mary's confession to Talbot, and her final moments before the execution—Donizetti's music does not always match the drama onstage. Too often it's impossible to tell whether a singer is expressing love or hatred, joy or fear, because no matter what the emotional content of the words the music remains lilting and mid-tempo.

The music is also repetitive. In Baroque opera, da capo arias have an A-B-A structure: when the A section is performed the second time, its meaning is informed by the contrasting emotion of the B section. In Maria Stuarda, the verse of an aria or cabaletta is often repeated for no discernable reason—there is no contrasting emotion or additional meaning. And Donizetti overuses certain musical effects; Mary sings a downward arpeggio to indicate heightened emotion something like half-a-dozen times, and (no fault of DiDonato) it's less effective each time.

But even in a problematic opera with a problematic staging about a problematic historical figure, Joyce DiDonato gave a harrowing, unforgettable performance as Mary. There will be an encore broadcast of Maria Stuarda on Wednesday, February 6, at 6:30 pm.

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