In Review > North America

Maria Stuarda

Houston Grand Opera

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DiDonato in the prayer scene of Maria Stuarda in Houston
© Felix Sanchez 2012
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Van Kooten and DiDonato, Elisabetta and Maria at HGO
© Felix Sanchez 2012
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DiDonato's Queen of Scots
© Felix Sanchez 2012

Houston Grand Opera closed its 2011–12 season with a first-rate production of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, a lesser-known bel canto work that boasted jaw-dropping performances from mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart and soprano Katie Van Kooten as Elizabeth I. The centerpiece of this drama is the poisonous rivalry between the two queens; DiDonato, in a much-anticipated role debut, and Van Kooten portrayed their relationship in colorful detail, each singer masterfully realizing a complex and multifaceted character (seen Apr. 27). 

There seems to be no mood, vocal color or pitch that DiDonato cannot produce. Mary Stuart is a noble queen done wrong in this opera, and the tender, smooth beauty of DiDonato's singing confirmed her goodness and vulnerability, especially in remarkably glowing softer passages. All the more captivating, then, was Mary's transformation during her smack-down of Elizabeth in Act I, scene 2: DiDonato delivered this tirade of scorching insults with spitting fury and iron-hard timbre, inspiring noises of unrestrained satisfaction from the audience. No less enthralling was Van Kooten's mercurial Elizabeth, who was, in turn, jealous, imperious, spiteful, fearful, hesitant, regretful — each mood realized in sound and gesture. Most striking was the sustained power of Van Kooten's soprano when Elizabeth's overruling decisions literally silenced all other voices.

As Robert, Earl of Leicester, tenor Eric Cutler achieved his best moments in quiet passages of milky sweetness that showed Leicester's sympathetic, peace-making nature. Pitted against Leicester — and Mary — is Cecil, implacable and just slightly sinister as portrayed by Oren Gradus, with his fine, smoky-dark bass.

The production is owned by Minnesota Opera, where it was first seen in 2011. Set designer Neil Patel, making his HGO debut, created an intricately ornamented, golden-coffered ceiling out of which lateral columns, a monumental painting and the apse of a church descended for the different scenes of the opera. Its looming omnipresence, even during the outdoor scene of Fotheringhay Park, conveyed both the oppressive courtly ritual of sixteenth-century England and Mary's fate of imprisonment and eventual doom. Director Kevin Newbury heightened this sense of unyielding fate by showing Mary and Elizabeth during the Act I prelude as small girls, two innocents before circumstance made them tragic enemies. Newbury's staging reliably underscored the most crucial moments in the opera. In the arrangement of characters during the initial, terse confrontation of Mary and Elizabeth, Leicester stood between them frozen with hopeful anticipation, except for his eyes darting from one to the other queen. And during Mary's prayer, courtiers knelt with her, one by one, in sympathy as they took up her song in an inexorable and moving crescendo.

The HGO Orchestra, led by Patrick Summers, accompanied the many ebbs and flows of tempo and dynamics with remarkable sensitivity. Special praise goes to principal clarinet Carol Stinson for a beautifully haunting solo during the early moments of the opera, while Mary and Elizabeth, as children and not yet adversaries, passed one another on the stage. spacer 


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