As a twenty year old who appreciates opera, I must also resign myself to the harsh reality that, unless I win the lotto, I cannot scrape together the money to see it live more than once a year.
What a thrill, then, to be introduced to the world of the Met HD, a series of Operas performed at The New York Metropolitan Opera House and broadcasted live to movie theaters around the world. Through my viewing of the Met’s first staging of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda I received a stunning treat: knowledge of an affordable, and easily available way to see opera productions, and a beautiful interpretation of a psychologically rich tale.
Maria Stuarda is a tragic, two-act opera by Donizetti; a highly fictionalized version of 16th century England based upon Friedrich Schiller's play Maria Stuart. The opera focuses on the dramatic tensions between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her exiled sister Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotts.
The history of these two revered Queens, without tweaking, is dramatic enough. Queen Elizabeth wished to kill Mary for the stability of her crown. Mary, imprisoned solely for her religious beliefs, lead a life of rather unjust, confined isolation. Letters back and forth between the two sisters reveal bitterness and tension. in Maria Stuarda, Schiller and librettist Giuseppe Bardari exacberate this tension by penning a meeting between the two Queens and a shared love interest, Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester. Add to this plenty of Bel Canto style singing and voila! you have created an opera, one that is an intensely rich and tragic work, especially in the agile hands of its stars.
South African Soprano Elza van de Heever plays Elizabeth with vigor and strength. So dedicated was she to this role, that she decided to shave her head for the ease of Elizabeth’s wigs. Matching this force is Joyce DiDonato’s Mary, a performance of spectacular poise, grace and subtlety. In addition to the two Queens, there are other characters: the Earl of Leicester, Mary’s custodian Talbot and Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Cecil. The Opera’s strength, however, lies in the crackling energy emitted as the two Queens collide, and in the Met’s telling, those Queens are spectacular, sympathetic and nuanced characters.
It is a testament to the Met, and to the skills of the leads, that both Queens are so well developed. I found myself, during the first Act of the play, trying pick one Queen to root for, feeling confused when my sympathies flip-flopped back and forth between them. This is interesting given the history of Maria Stuarda’s libretto. New York Times music critic Anthony Tomasinni notes that in the original libretto by Giuseppe Bardari, “the opera gives a very idealized portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was no slouch when it came to political machinations. A 19th-century Italian audience of Donizetti’s day would have rooted for her as a Roman Catholic who stands up to a Protestant queen and becomes a martyr for her religion.” Mary is written as a martyr Elizabeth as an emotional tyrant, yet the Met finds more complicated grey area for the two Queens.
During intermission, as I watched a backstage interview between Joyce DiDonato and Deborah Voigt, Joyce DiDonato pinpoints the crux of the Met’s HD version of Maria Stuardia. She says, “it is an opera in which each Queen truly believes she is right.” This simple, yet powerful statement sums up the secret to Maria Stuarda. The trick is not to compare, but to appreciate and accept the emotional journey of each sister, as well as the way their journey’s influence each other. Act II of the opera contains weighty questions to be resolved. Elizabeth must decide whether or not to pity and save Mary. Mary must confront her imminent death. Yet as I watched act II, I became enthralled with the music rather than the story. I am no technical master, but whatever DiDonato does, works. She sings flawlessly—controlled, clear and with excellent dynamics, she would often start softly and swell into her verses to beautiful effect. As the music washed over me, I realized the unique power contained in the act of listening. Earlier Elizabeth had sung about her conflicted decision to send Mary to her death. Now, here was Mary, reconciling herself to that death with wonderful dignity. I needn’t do more than listen to the beautiful story portrayed before me. DiDonato and Heever were equally fantastic storytellers and singers, and that, in the end was the only comparison that mattered in Maria Stuarda.
The Met’s presentation of Maria Stuarda was spectacular, as nuanced and rich as it could have been. The acting, the stark and abstracted set, the orchestration and the vocal performances, all drove the play from what could have been a rather black and white tale into a roiling pot of emotions and brilliant singing. And, as this is the Met’s premiere performance, I wonder if other companies shall follow suit, if other singers shall soar through Mary’s confession, or power through Elizabeth’s jealous rages.
Be sure to get to a theater near you on February 6th when you can see the encoure performance of Met HD Maria Stuarda. For more information go to:http://www.metoperafamily.org
Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera