DiDonato, van den Heever, Zifchak; Polenzani, Hopkins, Rose; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Benini.
Production: McVicar. Erato 2564632035, 142 mins., subtitled
Donizetti did not think of his so-called Tudor operas as a trilogy. The Metropolitan Opera does. In mounting the three works in a multi-season project, the company turned to director David McVicar, whose second installment, Maria Stuarda, reflects an intense quest for continuity and cohesion among the operas, with Queen Elizabeth I as lynchpin — what we might call the Wotan figure.
McVicar's 2011 production of the first installment, Anna Bolena, managed to put Elizabeth onstage, briefly, as a non-singing, redheaded child. His Maria Stuarda, captured on video from its HD telecast in 2013, builds considerably on her biography. Act I reveals a contrarian Elisabetta, robust, ungainly, swaggering and ribald, very much the daughter of Henry VIII.
The director's other major innovation is to insert more than a decade between the two acts of Maria Stuarda — making the work a longitudinal study, a bio-op, which allows the characters, especially Elisabetta, to decline before our eyes.
Soprano Elza van den Heever, in her company debut, creates a forceful Elizabeth at both the ages shown. In Act II we behold the disturbingly pale, bald crone remembered from movies (with Bette Davis or Cate Blanchett) and not usually seen in Donizetti until Roberto Devereux, the third Tudor opera (as performed by Sills and Gruberova). Van den Heever's monarch is especially moving for her vulnerability, an expression in the eyes that links her tyranny and whims to feminine insecurity.
The focus on Elisabetta poses a challenge for the nominal heroine, but mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato's Maria is assertive in a deliberately understated way. Drab, ascetic costuming seems only to emphasize a femininity that inflames her enemy, and her character barely ages by the end, except for signs of palsy. DiDonato suffers with grace, sheds real tears and invests the bel canto songs of loss, especially in her touching final scene, with gorgeous pliancy and tenderness.
Unfortunately, the famous confrontation between the rivals — for many fans, the heart and soul of Maria Stuarda — fails to ignite. Both singers lack the fierce vocal projection and the fiery temperament that such operatic duels require. DiDonato's Maria maintains her dignity, and you can't quite believe, or revel in, her use of the phrase "vil bastarda." Van den Heever deploys a richly balanced middle register with finesse but seems taxed by strenuous episodes.
Intentionally or not, the director's general strategy compensates for this deficit. As in his other operas at the Met, he stresses characterization, with an erotic edge. The tenor role of Leicester, sung with incisive lyricism by Matthew Polenzani, gains interest as a dashing, manipulative courtier somewhat overconfident of his appeal to women.
Stylized, subjective sets by John Macfarlane — a blood-red version of the British coat-of-arms, gigantic graffiti covering prison walls — show an ingenuity comparable to the director's. Expert camera work strains to catch every nuance in the dialogue. Conductor Maurizio Benini's pacing is flexible, conducive to eloquent vocal rumination and ever ready to accelerate a stretta or cabaletta to provide some of the thunder lacking elsewhere.
DAVID J. BAKER
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