Monday, 7 July 2014

Maria Stuarda at Covent Garden

Carmen Giannattasio and Joyce DiDonato in Maria Stuarda at the Royal Opera House (c) Bill Cooper / ROH 2014
Carmen Giannattasio and Joyce DiDonato (c) Bill Cooper / ROH 2014
Donizetti Maria Stuarda; Joyce DiDonato, Carmen Giannattasio, Ismael Jordi, cond. Bertrand de Billy; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 5 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Terrific musical performances in a dramatic performance lacking the courage of its convictions.

There was much anticipation for the Royal Opera's new production of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, the only previous performances of the opera at Covent Garden being five with Joan Sutherland in a production borrowed from ENO. A strong cast included Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda, Carmen Giannattasio as Elisabetta, Ismael Jordi as Leicester, Matthew Rose as Talbot, Jeremy Carpenter as Cecil, conducted by Bertrand de Billy. The production was directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, with set designs by Christian Fenouillat, costumes by Agostino Cavalca and lighting by Christophe Forey.

Leiser and Caurier's production mixed the 16th century with the present day. The setting for the opera was essentially modern; the Palace of Westminster for the first scene and a modern prison for the remainder of the opera. Apart from the two queens, the cast was in modern dress but both Maria and Elisabetta were in period dress and Maria's execution was done via axe (albeit in a modern setting), and the axe featured heavily as a prop throughout the opera.

The idea was an interesting one and could have worked well. Though it has to be said that Fenouillat's set for the Palace of Westminster was rather ugly (a drop curtain of the 19th century palace and very clubby leather sofa), and the prison used in the remainder of the opera made for a bleak and grim setting. Intriguingly, in the second act, Maria appeared without her ruff and her dress could have been placed in Donizetti's own period, or even a contemporary Vivienne Westwood-inspired creation. This meant that apart from the axe and the execution block, the production gradually moved completely into the contemporary.

I have said before that foreign directors ought to be given a crash course in English humour and comedy before staging operas in the UK. This very much applied here. Carmen Giannattasio as Elisabetta wore a huge period dress which she combined with a rather prancing demeanour so the farthingale shook a great deal as she walked. This reminded me not of Gloriana but of Queenie in Blackadder; an image only strengthened when Giannattasio started munching on a chicken leg at the start of the confrontation between Elisabetta and Maria.

Thankfully, the musical performances blew away any sense of comedy, and one wished that the directors had had the courage of their convictions and set the whole drama in the contemporary period. As the article in the programme by Terrell Carver explored, Schiller's fascination with power and autocrats is just as relevant today.

The role of Maria Stuarda is only one of a number that the great mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran adjusted so that she could perform them (Bellini's Norma was among her great roles). But perhaps thanks to Janet Baker, it remains one of the small number of major mezzo-soprano roles available in Bellini and Donizetti today. Joyce DiDonato has sung the role at the Met in New York, and certainly did not disappoint here. Her voice had a wonderful strength in the middle and lower registers which gave Maria an underlying strength and steeliness of character. But all was not darkness, DiDonato was delightful in the opening solo, which took place not in the open air but watching slides of her homeland.

Kathleen Wilkinson and Joyce DiDonato in Maria Stuarda at the Royal Opera House (c) Bill Cooper / ROH 2014
Kathleen Wilkinson and Joyce DiDonato in act one, scene two of Maria Stuarda (c) Bill Cooper / ROH 2014
The act one Maria had a strength to her which made the scene with Elisabetta seem inevitable. There was also a lovely inevitability about the way she approached death in the long confession scene with Matthew Rose's Talbot. DiDonato made it expressively moving, using Donizetti's elaborate vocal lines to powerful effect. In the prayer and final Rondo DiDonato used the lightness of her upper registar to poignant effect. (Though the mood was broken at one point by too zealous bravas from the audience). This was a strongly moving performance, technically superb with finely wrought fioriture and a fabulous trill, but all used in the expressive necessity of the drama.

Carmen Giannattasio, perhaps familiar from her recordings of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti for Opera Rara, was wonderfully firm of voice as Elisabetta. What I loved about Giannattasio's performance was that the firmness and character came through the music. She sang with strongly focussed tone and never needed to distort the vocal line. Musically at least, this Elisabetta was no caricature. She was clearly the dominant character in her duet with Ismael Jordi's Leicester (himself no weakling) and her brilliant way with the fioriture was a joy to listen to. The act two trio was also well done, but it was the confrontation at the end of act one where sparks really flew, very musical sparks. Both divas were capable of combining power and flexibility to thrilling effect. This was really music drama and showed quite how intense bel canto drama can be.

Carmen Giannattasio and Jeremy Carpenter in Maria Stuarda at the Royal Opera House (c) Bill Cooper / ROH 2014
Carmen Giannattasio and Jeremy Carpenter in the opening scene of Maria Stuarda
(c) Bill Cooper / ROH 2014
Ismael Jordi as Leicester was quite a find. Making his Covent Garden debut he displayed an elegant, bright toned, lithe tenor voice and a feel for this period of music. He studied with Alfredo Kraus, and something of this tenor's elegance showed. he is also a well put together young man, and we were treated to a shirtless moment in his duet with Giannattasio in act one. Leicester is a role that we mainly know from interacting with others and Jordi impressed with his stylishness and flexibility in partnering his two divas impressively. Perhaps his voice was slightly monochrome, lacking the colours needed by the music of this period, but this is a small point.

Matthew Rose was a dignified Talbot, his voice had a nicely warm soft-grained flexibility, and he brought sympathy and aplomb to the moment when Talbot reveals himself as a priest and takes Maria's confession. Jeremy Carpenter was reliable and adept in the relatively small role of Cecil, and Kathleen Wilkinson was a sympathetic Anna.

Joyce DiDonato in Maria Stuarda at the Royal Opera House (c) Bill Cooper / ROH 2014
Joyce DiDonato in closing scene of Maria Stuarda
(c) Bill Cooper / ROH 2014
Whilst I had my doubts about aspects of the production, the strength of Leiser and Caurier's approach told in the final scene. Here Maria was isolated in a cell with only Jeremy Carpenter's Cecil and Peter Dineen's executioner. All communication was via a window and as her followers assembled outside with their candles, she held hands with Matthew Rose's Talbot and Ismael Jordi's Leicester. A powerful and moving image.

In the pit, Bertrand de Billy gave us a sympathetic account of the music, allowing space for his singers but never feeling rushed or over indulgent. The Royal Opera House orchestra responded with some fine playing and a powerful account of the overture.

Whilst the performers were warmly applauded, Leiser and Caurier and their team were roundly booed (I have always felt booing to be pointless and that silence is surely a better response). But, that said, whilst the production had its problematic aspects it was surely not that bad. If the audience could not cope with Leiser and Caurier's interesting if flawed take on an historical opera, what of more challenging interpretations?

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