Monday, January 21, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Battling Divas" (on Giuseppe Badari's and Gaetano Donizetti's Maria Stuarda)

battling divas
by Douglas Messerli
Giuseppe Badari (libretto, based on the play by Friedrich von Schiller), Gaetano Donizetti Maria Stuarda / New York, The Metropolitan Opera H.D. live presentation, January 19, 2013

Watching the live H.D. presentation of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda on Saturday, I was reminded of and agreed with New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini’s enthusiastic review of the opera:

  if you think of a gala as a meaningful celebration, then
  it was hard to imagine a better New Year’s Eve gift to
  opera lovers than this musically splendid and intensely
  dramatic performance of Maria Stuarda.
       The production stars the great American mezzo-soprano
  Joyce DiDonato in the title role, a part that has been sung by
  sopranos and mezzo-sopranos. Ms. DiDonato’s performance
  will be pointed to as a model of singing in which all
  components of the art form — technique, sound, color,
  nuance, diction — come together in service to expression.

     All the performances were excellent, particularly DiDonato’s Maria, but also South African Elza van den Heever’s powerful Queen Elizabeth and Matthew Polenzani’s well sung role of the Earl of Leicester. The marvelous encounter between the Scottish queen and the English ruler is, quite obviously, the most unforgettable scene in the opera, wherein, after insulting attacks on Maria for licentiousness, murder, and treason, the patient Scott ruins her possibilities for freedom by lashing back, denouncing Elizabeth as “the illegitimate offspring of a whore.”

      But the glorious aria “Oh! Nube che lieve,” which Maria sings to the clouds over her head just before that encounter, in one of her first times in which she has been released to the outside, is absolutely beautiful, as well as her last act confession to George Talbot (Matthew Rose) and her touching acceptance of her fate. All is equally stunningly staged.


     Despite all of this marvelous operatic bravura, however, Donizetti’s opera still seems a bit clotted and somewhat strangled by the libretto, which focuses too much on the two queens’ battle, without filling in the audience about the issues that lay behind those horrific clashes. The religious differences—the fact that Maria was Catholic in a culture that had recently, through the hands of Elizabeth’s father, broken with the Pope—are certainly hinted at, but not explicitly developed. Scotland’s own turmoil between the Knox-led Presbyterianism and local Catholicism is not even hinted. And, although Maria’s checkered sexual past—the death of her husband Darnley and her relationships with David Rizzio and others—are vaguely suggested, unless you know the history, Elizabeth’s attacks are nearly meaningless. Elizabeth herself is portrayed as such a cruel cousin that one would be unable to comprehend how difficult she found it to sentence Maria to death, a queen after all!; nor might we imagine that that death might have been a misunderstood request.

     Of course, the audience of Donizetti’s day—and even the audiences of contemporary Europe, well versed in European history—might immediately have understood the underlying facts of the story. But, even though I think of myself as fairly well-educated in terms of history, I missed a large number of Donizetti’s and his librettist’s allusions, which helped to create a notion of Elizabeth’s almost maniacal behavior and Maria’s confused innocence. Even if you grant both Schiller and Donizetti their fictional aspirations, what the opera finally focused on was a battle of divas—as engaging as that is—instead of a battle between two warring queens—both of whom, as the real-life divas, in between acts admitted, believed they were right. More importantly, without any deep historical context, it is difficult to comprehend Maria’s marvelous scene of confession. Was Maria truly involved in Darnley’s death? Was she plotting for the assassination of Elisabeth? And what was Leister’s role in all of this? The fuzziness of the opera’s history takes away the consequence of the character’s actions, so that the incredible meeting of the two queens seems to occur more as a force of performance than a revelation of  the figures whom those performers represent.

     Finally, as beautiful as many of the arias were, Donizetti’s score is simply not as beauteous as it aspires to be. Throughout, his formulaic patterns of Bel Canto arias seem just that. In short, while I was absolutely delighted to see this seldom performed work, it did not take me to the level of “complete renewal” Tommasini promised. It was only—what a strange qualification!—a wondrous treat.

Los Angeles, January 21, 2003

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