BWW Reviews: Cheers for DiDonato, Van den Heever and the Metropolitan Opera's MARIA STUARDA
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by Richard Sasanow
There's usually not much in the way of fireworks in New York between New Year's and July 4th, but there certainly is no shortage of pyrotechnics in the Met's new Maria Stuarda, which is having its long-overdue premiere in the house. It brings us two sensational performances: American mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role, Mary Stuart (Maria), and South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth I (Elisabetta).
They are well matched and stunning in very different ways. The opera is based on a play by Friedrich Schiller written in 1800, who cannily built it around a fictional meeting between Elizabeth and Mary. The confrontation scene, set in the park of Fotheringhay Castle, is riveting, dramatically and in the performances. DiDonato is at her best as she spews forth her venom at von Heever and casts a palpable chill in the air as she says things ("bastarda di Bolena") that no one should say to the Queen of England. (Of course, Mary believes that throne is rightfully hers.) Her big, flexible voice was a pleasure to hear.
Both give as well as they take and the opera's about as exciting as anything recently on stage at the Met. The two women did everything except grab each other and roll around on stage. Elizabeth turns out the winner, because Van den Heever manages to make the Virgin Queen sympathetic, a difficult task at best. Her voice didn't sound conventionally pretty, but it did not matter for a moment. (Van den Heever did, however, move in a peculiar way that made me wonder whether she was disabled, which I do not believe she is.) On the other side, DiDonato portrays Mary as a towering figure who clearly doesn't want our sympathy, but is a dignified, flesh-and-blood human being who accepts her fate.
David McVicar's production, with spare scenery and often-sumptuous costumes by John MacFarlane, kept the dramatic momentum of the story going after the early climax of the Fotheringhay scene. Its best achievement, I believe, was to keep out of the way of the opera itself, which is musically rich and one Donizetti work that doesn't make you think of half a dozen other operas by the composer. (This is no small feat, considering how much music he recycled more than once.)
Why on earth did it take so long to make its debut at the Met? Joan Sutherland debuted in the role in San Francisco in 1971 and did it a couple of times later at Covent Garden. I suppose, if she had wanted it enough the Met would have done it-God knows, they mounted Massenet's Esclarmonde for her, which is not only inferior but didn't show Sutherland at her best.
Of course, Beverly Sills did it across the plaza at NYC Opera (when it was still across the plaza), as part of what Julius Rudel called her "Donizetti Ring," to acclaim and popularity back in the '70s; it is also one of the works that reputedly sped the decline of her voice. While this version fits DiDonato, a mezzo, one misses the excitement of the high notes a soprano brings to the role. If you want to know what I mean, listen to Sutherland in her prime in her debut in the role at the San Francisco Opera or Sills from NYCO in 1972.
There's a dearth of tenors who could step into the role of Leicester on short notice, since it's not exactly a repertoire staple, but Salvatore Cordella's unexpected house debut gave greater appreciation for the artistry of Matthew Polenzani, the Met's young-old reliable in bel-canto roles who was out ill on Jan 4. (Cordella covered Edgardo in Lucia during the Met's post-earthquake Japan tour, when performers were dropping out over radiation fears.) . The libretto, which was greatly revised because of political problems in 19th century Italy, was clearly just part of the problem. He did a decent enough job, except for some intonation problems that came and went throughout the evening, but his performance left me wondering why the queens both had eyes for him
The rest of the cast was in fine shape, with bass Matthew Rose in wonderful voice as Giorgio, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who is loyal to Mary; baritone Joshua Hopkins as Guglielmo, who is the ultimate political insider while remaining sympathetic; and mezzo Maria Zifchak, as the touching and big-voiced Anna, Mary's lady-in-waiting, who escorts her to the gallows.
As usual, the Met orchestra sounded very good, this time under the baton of maestro Maurizio Benini, who kept the opera moving briskly toward its tumultuous, tragic ending.