Tragic opera in 2 Acts by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Guiseppe Bardari and the composer, based on the dramatic play, MARIA STUART by Friedrich Schiller (1800).
Performance by Houston Grand Opera on Saturday, 21st April 2012 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center Houston, Texas.
Sets and costumes from Minnesota Opera.
Conductor Patrick Summers
Director Kevin Newbury
Scenery Designer Neil Patel
Costume Designer Jessica Jahn
Lighting Designer D M Wood
Chorus Master Richard Bado
Mary Stuart Joyce DiDonato
Elizabeth I Katie van Kooten
Earl of Leicester Eric Cutler
Talbot Robert Gleadow
Cecil Oren Gradus
Anna Catherine Martin
MARIA STUARDA is the third of Donizetti’s 4 tudor operas, following IL CASTELLO DI KENILWORTH and ANNA BOLENA. ROBERO DEVERAUX is the 4th. The opera’s chequered career includes a libretto by the 17 year old Guiseppe Bardari, censorship problems, and a poor reception resulting in the opera being ignored for almost one hundred years until a production in Bergamo (Donizetti’s home town) in 1958, and the discovery of an autographed score in Sweden in the 1980s.
The opera had already been passed by the Neapolitan censor prior to the first dress rehearsal which was attended by the King of Naples. In the confrontation scene between the two Queens (an historically incorrect addition to Schiller’s play and the opera) occurred during the rehearsal, the soprano singing Maria Stuarda sang “vil bastarda” (vile bastard) to Elizabeth I and was slapped across the face by the soprano singing that role, resulting in an unladylike scuffle. The King subsequently banned the opera. Probably the fact his wife, Queen Maria Christine was a descendant of Maria Stuarda also played a part in his decision. Donizetti engaged Pietro Salatino to write a new libretto and revised the score. The “new” opera was named BUONDELMONTE after a character in Dante’s Paradiso, and received an unsuccessful premiere in October 1834. It was subsequently withdrawn by Donizetti.
MARIA STUARDA finally received its first performance at La Scala, Milan on the 30th December 1835 with the legendary sfogato soprano, Maria Malibran, as Maria Stuarda. Malibran ignored the censoring revisions, including the substitution of “donna vile” for the previously troublesome “vil bastarda” and the Milanese censor banned further performances. A London premiere was planned, but the project was cancelled with the death of Malibran at the age of 28 years in 1836.
Since the operas resurrection in the 1980′s, the work has almost become a member of the standard repertoire.
This production of MARIA STUARDA originated at the Minnesota Opera in 2011. The production is quietly understated, with a huge, gilded, coffered ceiling suspended at an angle over the playing space from which various architectural features descend through the ceiling, such as large rectangular columns and curved frescoed walls. Elizabeth and Mary appeared as children during the prelude and were reunited again as children following Mary’s decapitation. Apart from an occasional table and a throne, additional properties were minimal. Elizabeth I made her initial entrance on a mobile pulpit from which she addressed her Court, and Mary entered on a mobile set of high metal stairs which was wheeled around the stage. Costumes were traditional and faithful to the period. The effect was simple, effective and minimalistic, enabling the singers to do just what they do best – to sing and develop the characters they are portraying.
All eyes and ears were on mezzo soprano, Joyce DiDonato making her debut in the title role. Miss Donato is a darling of the Houston audience after being a member of the Young Artists Program at Houston Grand Opera and singing 16 roles in previous productions – all to great acclaim. Her assumption of the role provided some exciting singing and acting, but to my ears sounded a little unusual being sung by a mezzo, and coloratura work was not as deliciously precise as is usually heard in her performances of Rossini and Handel works. Perhaps the role had not sung into her voice yet. Despite these quibbles the performance was dramatic and involving. Highlights were the confrontation scene with Elizabeth I (the ‘vil bastards’ was in) and the sublime prayer with chorus in the final scene of act II.
Katie van Kooten, a recent graduate of the Jet Young Artists Program at the Royal Opera Covent Garden sang Elizabeth I. She possesses a creamy soprano which she has previously been put to great use as Helena and Ellen Orford in the Neil Armfield productions of Britten’s A MIDSUMMER”S NIGHTS DREAM and PETER GRIMES for Houston Grand Opera. Loooking every inch the part, she delivered an vivid portrayal of this historical figure with great passion, a luscious voice, and florid singing, but again with some lack of the truly great coloratura fireworks expected. Eric Cutler, a fine tenor who specialises in the bel canto tenor roles sang fluidly with a beautiful tonal quality and dramatic engagement. His character was well defined and provided a good pivot for the secondary (albeit historically incorrect) conflict of the opera – the emotional triangle between the Earl of Leicester and both Queens. The voices of Robert Galdow as Talbot and Oren Gradus as Cecil made fine contributions. Current Houston Grand Opera Young Artists member Catherine Martin made a stand out contribution in the small role of Anna.
The excellent and finely schooled Houston Grand Opera Chorus made an exciting and exacting contribution to the opera, as did the excellent Houston Grand Opera Orchestra all controlled with the usual expertise and passion of Maestro Patrick Summers in the pit.
The final scene of the opera varied from the Minnesota staging with the dramatic lowering of the suspended coffered ceiling during the execution of Maria Stuarda.
This was a great night with stellar singing in the superb Brown Theater of the Wortham Centre, with an enthusiastic audience that gave the production and cast a rousing and well deserved standing ovation, and also convinced me of the worth and great musical treasures found in this Donizetti work.