Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
The Real Housewives of 16th Century England
April 22, 2012
Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda is an Italian opera, based on a German play about an English Queen and her rival. This weekend it got a Texan accent as well when Houston Grand Opera presented the work along with superstar mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role. Donizetti’s trilogy of operas about Tudor family values have been getting another wave of revivals in America in recent years and some big companies including the Metropolitan Opera and Houston, are presenting these works for the first time. DiDonato was making her role debut in a precursor to performances she’ll give in a brand new production from David McVicar starting on a Gala New Year’s Eve in New York later this year. From one perspective, this is another major step forward in her currently white hot career. She’s best known to American audiences for her comic bel canto roles and staple mezzo pants parts in Mozart and Strauss. But while her Cherubinos and Rosinas are unquestionably superb, she’s often a show stealer in a larger ensemble cast or playing the crafty side kick or second banana. This comes with the mezzo territory, but Maria Stuarda is straight-out drama and DiDonato is the name above the title this time around and the prime ticket draw. As well she should be. And if you’re wondering if the price of admission in this case is worth it, the answer is undoubtedly yes.
Maria Stuarda is based on the Schiller play of the same name. It fills the public’s need for Tudor porn, a cottage industry for over four hundred years, structuring an entire opera around two imagined meetings between Elizabeth I of England and her Catholic cousin and queen of the Scots Mary Stuart. While there is no evidence such meetings took place, they make for some great confrontations and reinforce the excuse for a love story with both queens in the thrall of Robert, Earl of Leicester, who was sung on opening night by Eric Cutler. As you might guess, things don’t go well for Stuart who is in prison the whole opera and goes to meet her maker in the closing scene. DiDonato is a first-rate actor and inhabits the role with a nuance any of her stage peers would envy including the non-singing ones like Janet McTeer. The look in her face and tone in her voice when she defiantly defends her faith and reputation in the face of Elizabeth’s accusations are priceless. Vocally there’s almost nothing more you could ask for. She dispatches colouratura runs with detail, can float pianissimos and leaves the audience hanging on every breath. There is still some room for her to grow in the part. She doesn’t always make the most of some of the role's darker vocal shadings, but make no mistake, it’s a performance you’ll want to see more than once, so hearing her sing it after some more stage time is an event to anticipate.
She is surrounded by a well suited cast. Elizabeth I never gets top billing in Donizatti’s two operas which have huge roles for her. Her lover gets the title in Roberto Devereux and she misses out on those honors here again. Elizabeth is sung by the young American soprano Katie Van Kooten and she too has formidable vocal chops. Her scenes opposite Cutler and Oren Gradus who sings Cecil are involving and well-proportioned. Her interpretation of Elizabeth can get overly shrewish at times especially when set against DiDoanto’s Stuart, but this is still an exciting introduction to a young artist to watch. Cutler also gives one of the finer performances I’ve heard him give in the smaller role of the lover Robert.
Sadly though, all of the cast are hampered by a dull, under-directed production helmed by Kevin Newbury. The stage is dominated by a single set piece, a huge architecturally decorated ceiling panel. Once every so often, molding gives way up there and pillars or small walls hurdle stageward to suggest various interiors and exteriors. There are a few inexplicable moments as well. In the concluding scene, Stuart is blindfolded downstage then left to walk upstage alone and then go up a few steps to get to her final position on a small riser after everyone else has already departed in a sort of DIY execution. Many in the cast are repeatedly burdened with various silent movie gestures to perform as well, in a staging that seems more like a suggestion for an opera production than a completed project. The costumes also struck me as rather unattractive despite their aspirations to authenticity and could be ill fitting here and there. In the pit was Houston Grand Opera’s Music Director Patrick Summers who fared much better with a tight, well coordinated performance from the orchestra that didn’t drag and was largely deferential to the vocalists.
So whether or not this particular Maria Stuarda transports anyone to Tudor England , it will undoubtedly get you very close to some first class singing and an exciting career highlight performance from one of today’s biggest stars. The show runs through May 4 in Houston.