Rare Donizetti: Maria Padilla Performed in Boston

Donizetti, Maria Padilla: Soloists, orchestra and chorus of Opera Boston, Gil Rose (conductor), Boston, Massachusetts, 6.5.2011 (LS)


Director: Gil Rose
Stage Director: Julia Pevzner
Producer: Leslie Koenig
Scenic Designer: Alexander Lisiyansky
Costume Designer: Howard Tsvi Kaplan
Lighting Designer: Christopher Ostrom
Wig Designer: Anne Nesmith
Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master: Edward Elwyn Jones
Répétiteur: Linda Osborn-Blashke
Titles: Allison Voth
Photograph: Clive Grainger


Maria Padilla: Barbara Quintiliani
Ines Padilla: Laura Vlasak Nolen
Don Luigi: Yeghishe Manucharyan
Francisca: Megan Roth
Don Pedro, King of Castile: DongWon Kim
Don Alfonso di Pardo: John Salvi
Don Luis di Padilla: Adriano Graziani
Don Ramiro: Young Bok Kim
Bianca di Borbon: Sol Kim Bentley

Maria Padilla Act II-Photo by Clive Grainger

On December 26, 1841, just two months before Verdi’s Nabucco began transforming Italian opera, Donizetti’s Maria Padilla was premiered at La Scala. And although La Favorite (1840) and Linda Di Chamounix (1842) are both much better known, this is unfortunate, because Maria Padilla has some very fine music and requires an exceptional coloratura soprano to sing the demanding title role.

This was the composer’s 58th opera and given its unfamiliarity, a few words about the plot (which may seem strange at first) are in order. Maria Padilla tells her sister Ines that she dreamed of becoming Queen of Castile – which seems to be coming true when Don Pedro, the heir to the throne, falls in love with her. But he has a big problem: he’s being forced to marry Bianca di Borbon to cement relationships between France and Spain. Although catastrophe is suggested (and indeed Maria commits suicide in the play on which the opera was based) Donizetti’s version ends happily with Maria on the throne.

Of course, things get a bit more complicated. Don Pedro first meets Maria disguised as “Mendez,” then tries to abduct her, after which she threatens to kill him, then herself. Don Pedro signs a document “attesting before God that I swore my faith to the honorable Donna Maria Padilla my legitimate consort.” But he emphasizes that this relationship must be kept a secret, and sets her up in a palace as his mistress.

The courtiers are aghast, and Duke Don Ramiro reveals to Maria’s father, Don Ruiz, that Maria is Don Pedro’s lover. Ruiz swears revenge, and the remainder of the opera centers around the tension between Maria, her father and Don Pedro. Ruiz (in disguise) threatens the king, is arrested and dragged off to be beaten. Maria comes on the scene to beg for his life, as Don Ramiro announces he is in fact, Don Ruiz. Maria is again furious, cursing the king and throwing his diamonds to the floor as Act II ends.

Act III begins with a mad scene for Ruiz (the only time Donizetti composed such a scene for a tenor). Maria tries to convince him that she will ascend the throne, but to no avail, so she finally shows him the “legitimate consort” document and in a frenzy, Ruiz tears it up. Naturally, Maria is distraught. Bianca arrives for the wedding, and Don Pedro is in a state of turmoil: should he wed Bianca and strengthen Spain, or tell the world he has married Maria? As the wedding ceremony begins, Maria rushes in and tells all, and as Don Pedro proclaims that Maria is the Queen, the courtiers and Don Ramiro are outraged as Maria sings a florid rondo finale.

At the opera’s first performance, the heroine died “of joy” – a strange ending that may have been the result of censors preventing Donizetti from following the script of the original play. In any case, the second performance contained the happy ending heard in all further stagings.

As Maria, Barbara Quintiliani received rave reviews in 2009 at Wexford, but recently she has been having major health problems, and although by opening night she had greatly improved, her performance was inconsistent. Much of the time her singing was beautiful and her acting made the tormented character come alive. But there were problems with the famous Act II duet with Ines, “Ah si! suora! Ah!,” and she chose not to sing the high  D at the end  of Act  II or the D flat in the finale of Act III, rightly afraid that she might miss the mark.

The loudest applause was for the Welshman Adriano Graziani as Don Ruiz (in his American debut) boasting a clear tenor voice with a sure top, and his Act III mad scene was perhaps the evening’s highlight. I had only one concern: he was supposed to be an old man, yet he was agile enough to leap onto a table during the course of his Act II cabaletta, “Una gioja ancor mi resta.”

DongWon Kim gave an impressive performance as Don Pedro, including a beautiful “Ah! quello fu per me“ followed by the showstopper cabaletta “Lasciar Maria.” Laura Vlasak Nolen has a large, beautiful mezzo voice, perhaps too powerful for the role of Ines. (Although Donizetti wrote the role for a soprano, some recent productions have substituted a mezzo.) Nevertheless it was quite enjoyable to hear her Act I cabaletta “Sorridi, oh sposo amato,” which received enthusiastic applause.

Following his excellent Silva in Ernani (also for Opera Boston), Young Bok Kim sang Don Ramiro with competence, authority, and appropriate villany. In Ernani I felt he could have projected a bit more, but that was not an issue here. Yeghishe Manucharyan, John Salvi and cover Megan Roth all sang their roles well, as did Edward Elwyn Jones’ chorus, although the latter might have been less static.

Christopher Ostrom contributed wonderful lighting, and Howard Tsvi Kaplan – whose costumes are always on the mark at Sarasota Opera – designed the ones here. But I was less happy with the puzzling scenic design and the stage direction. The set consisted of a winding spiral wall with arched doorways leading up to a giant suspended crown, which I learned later was a symbol for the obstacles Maria had to overcome in her journey to be Queen. Nor could I understand a large framed portrait which was changed during various scenes. And I felt that Quintiliani’s positioning in the opening dream sequence was unflattering.

On the other hand, the long opera moved along swiftly – aided by conductor Gil Rose’s usual excellence with the orchestra. With its production of Tancredi in 2010, followed by this one, Opera Boston has served notice that it intends to make a name for itself in the world of bel canto. Next year Bellini’s I capuletti e i montecchi will be on the boards, and I hope I’ll be there.

Lew Schneider