In Review > North America

Maria Stuarda

Seattle Opera

In Review Seattle Maria Stuarda lg 516
Sovereign figure: El-Khoury’s eminently sympathetic Maria Stuarda in Seattle
© Jacob F. Lucas

SOPRANO JOYCE EL-KHOURY, set to sing her first Maria Stuarda in the second cast of Seattle Opera’s staging, jumped into the first cast for ailing soprano Serena Farnocchia and triumphed in two performances (Feb. 27–28) of the demanding role with just sixteen hours’ rest between them. She not only substituted on opening-night Saturday and sang her scheduled gig Sunday afternoon—with no evident husbanding of resources or fatigue—but also had sung each cast’s dress rehearsal on Wednesday and Thursday.

El-Khoury made nuanced, moving use of an instrument that is not extraordinary in size or timbre. She conveyed determination, disdain and rage through phrasing and demeanor more than sheer voice in the “vil bastarda” climax to the queens’ confrontation; this Maria all but spat on Elisabetta and was pleased with and proud of this victory over her own gentle nature, not at all fraught with thought of the consequences. El-Khoury’s soft singing was eloquent throughout, especially so in the cantabile of the confession duet with Talbot, where her pianissimo was always audible. The prayer’s eight-bar sustained G and chromatic ascent to B flat, sung without break for breath, sounded clearly over the chorus. The exclamation “Roberto! Roberto! Ascolta!” was arresting, the name forte and lacerating, the verb soft, with a floated F-sharp. As for the traditional conclusive top notes that Donizetti didn’t write, El-Khoury sang most of them and made them valid and exciting.

El-Khoury’s eminently sympathetic characterization of Maria, along with the fact that Donizetti assigns the Scots queen much more music—and more of the most moving music—than he gives Elisabetta, made Seattle Opera’s marketing of Maria Stuarda as “The Battle of the Queens” a distortion.  In this case, Elisabetta was a principal but no co-protagonist. Certainly, Mary Elizabeth Williams, whose big, distinctive voice commanded attention but often turned hooty on high and sometimes delivered steam-whistle-like blasts in the upper midrange, was not an ingratiating Elisabetta. The second cast’s Keri Alkema, more consistent, focused and intense as both singer and actress, was a marked improvement.

John Tessier’s forward-placed tenor, strong as well as sweet, made Leicester the best of his four Seattle Opera roles thus far. The second cast’s Andrew Owens sounded too fulsome and good to direct lines such as “Io ti rivedo” to the audience instead of to Maria. The remaining principals were common to both casts. Baritone Weston Hurt, as Talbot, was, as always, steady and sympathetic. Singing more incisively than I’ve ever heard him, Michael Todd Simpson was an ideal Cecil—lean, hungry, dangerous. Renée Rapier was a resonant Hannah. The chorus sang the hymn of death as movingly as it did “Va, pensiero” in the season-opening Nabucco. Conductor Carlo Montanaro gave a superbly propulsive reading, whipping through the score in close to two hours.

The production was Kevin Newbury’s, presented at Minnesota Opera in 2011 and Houston Grand Opera in 2012, with designs by Neil Patel (sets), Jessica Jahn (handsome costumes) and D. M. Wood (lighting). Newbury undermined his mostly strong Personenregie with Vegas-like razzmatazz and overkill. From a golden coffered ceiling descended pillars and a reproduction, full-size or more, of Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, depicting the ascension of another Mary, inviting us to see our Maria as something of a saint. Countering this by elevating Elisabetta above Maria were stairways—as in passenger-boarding stairs at airports—that were senselessly spun around. Choristers wandered for no good reason. There were two random snowfalls.  

There were signs that the staging was still being fine-tuned. Saturday’s virtual parade of images of Those Not Present—Maria and Elisabetta as young girls again and again, Maria haunting guilty Elisabetta, Darnley haunting guilty Maria, Elisabetta haunting the chorus—seemed less tiresome on Sunday, with fewer appearances of the young girls. Saturday’s first scene ended with an unlikely, ludicrous sight—Elisabetta and Leicester down on the floor necking—but nothing of the sort happened on Sunday.  —Mark Mandel

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