Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Killer Queens

January 17, 2013

 
Elza van den Hever and Joyce DiDonato Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012

This Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast a live performance (in HD as we are incessantly reminded) of the company’s new production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda across the world. I saw the production on New Year’s Eve and although there is not a single surprising thing about it, you should go see it. The primary reason is because of the biggest non-surprise in the show – the incomparable vocal artistry of American mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role. She sang the role spectacularly in Houston earlier this year to great acclaim and she is no less successful here. She is nothing short of radioactive in this performance. Her vocal lines are so beautifully shaped and cared for, her inner reserve as the imprisoned queen so heart stopping, it will leave you stunned. Her opening scene, the second part of Act I, may be one of the best things I saw on any opera stage all last year. DiDonato has taken the mantle as one of opera’s true international super stars in recent years, and here she delivers with a title role deserving of her superb artistry.

Of course a world-class performance from DiDonato is no surprise. Sadly given the artistic fortunes of today’s Met, most of the off kilter underwhelming elements of the production otherwise should also come as no shocker. David McVicar’s by-the-numbers staging has all the dramatic tug of a Macy’s window display. It’s dark and lovely but slavishly follows the house imperative against interpretation or analysis. All of that is fine and well, but what McVicar does to the poor soprano Elza van den Heever is nearly unforgivable. She takes on the other meaty role in the opera, Elizabeth I of England, and musically you could ask for little more from her. San Francisco audiences were lucky enough to hear many of such performances during her time there, and her Met debut is a notable one. Except for the cartoon villain mannerisms McVicar foists on her character, like trying to snap a riding crop in two as a sign of anger, for example, in one of the opera’s several unintentionally laugh out loud moments. This is not good theater – plain and simple.

The Met orchestra sounded lovely if under-rehearsed on opening night under maestro Maurizio Benini. Hopefully things will have settled down in time for the broadcast on Saturday, but on New Year’s Eve the sound was sluggish and wandering at times. Matthew Polenzani is also on stage as Leicester, but, thanks to Donizetti, blink and you’ll miss him. In the end this is Donizetti’s version of Schiller’s play, and the dueling queens, who never actually met in real life, are still the centerpieces. And the Met has recruited two formidable women in these roles making this very predictable new production worth seeing despite its many failures.

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1/18/13
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1/19/13
Reneé Fleming and Susan Graham
recital
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