Canada Donizetti, Maria Stuarda: Pacific Opera Victoria, soloists, Victoria Symphony, Timothy Vernon (conductor), Royal Theatre, Victoria, British Columbia, 14.4.2012 (BJ)
Elisabetta, Queen of England: Sally Dibblee (soprano)
George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury: Stephen Hegedus (bass-baritone)
Lord William Cecil, Lord Chancellor: Andrew Love (baritone)
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester: Edgar Ernesto Ramírez (tenor)
Anna Kennedy, Maria’s companion: Lisa DiMaria (soprano)
Maria Stuarda, Queen of Scotland: Tracy Dahl
Maria Lamont (director)
Camellia Koo (sets and costumes)
Michael Walton (lighting)
Giuseppe Pietraroia (chorus master)
Robert Holliston (chief coach and répétiteur)
For opera-lovers in general, the list of operas with a claim to being Donizetti’s masterpiece would probably start with Lucia di Lammermoor on the tragic side, and, among the comedies, with L’elisir d’amore or Don Pasquale. Few would be likely to nominate Maria Stuarda—but that may be only because it is much less well known. And Pacific Opera Victoria’s musically resplendent production set me to thinking that this indeed is a work that can stand worthily alongside Lucia and that may even surpass it in musico-dramatic richness and sheer emotional impact.
Many an opera possesses a scene that can be called emblematic of its central content. In Lucia, that scene is certainly the famous Mad Scene for the title character, though I have always felt that the sane Edgardo’s final aria is the greatest thing in the score; mad scenes tend, by their very nature, to be tours de force and, as such, interest me less than what may loosely be called normality. (I lost my taste for the novels of Joyce Carol Oates when I realized that, great as she is at depicting weirdness, the everyday transactions of ordinary persons seem to be outside her range.)
Undeniably touching as Lucia’s fate is, I will take any day, in preference to the long-drawn-out representation of her fantastications, a scene of dramatic confrontation like the encounter of the two queens in Maria Stuarda. Oh yes, of course, Elizabeth the Queen of England and Mary the Queen of Scotland can hardly be called ordinary persons. But the passions that drive them are the kinds of passions that you or I, whoever or wherever or whenever we are, can readily imagine being driven by. It is intensely moving to watch Elizabeth, one of the most famously strong women in history, torn between her regal dignity and her helpless love for Leicester, struggling with the choice of pardoning Mary or sentencing her to death, and moving also to watch Mary struggling no less helplessly to control her own violent temper.
The effect of this brilliantly conceived (if unhistoric) and thrillingly composed scene depends inevitably on the availability of two liberally gifted sopranos, and that is exactly what we were offered in a cast without a single weak link. Sally Dibblee has the looks and the stage presence to come across as an utterly believable Elizabeth I, and the dramatic skill to enter fully into that character’s inner turmoil. She also has voice and technique to burn, and her frequent volleys of bravura were carried off with as much virtuosity and power as clarity and security; this is a singing actress likely to be recognized before long as a world-class star performer. The Mary, Tracy Dahl, already has something of that reputation in her own right, and she too, after a slightly less magisterial start, scaled comparable dramatic and musical heights on the way to her tragic end.
Stephen Hegedus’s Talbot and Andrew Love’s Cecil were equally authoritative and stylish. Lisa DiMaria portrayed Mary’s loyal companion, Anna, compellingly. And, in the dramatically taxing role of Leicester, the Mexican/American Edgar Ernesto Ramírez showed himself to be that rarity, a tenore di grazia who combines dramatic flair, vocal charm, and musical taste—what a pleasure it is to encounter a hero in an Italian opera who, without shortchanging the effect of his big moments, never for a moment descends into shouting!
Musically, as I said, resplendent, the performance was materially enhanced by Timothy Vernon’s passionate conducting and the spirited and polished playing he drew from the Victoria Symphony. Donizetti’s imaginative scoring provides strings, brass, percussion, and especially woodwinds with many opportunities to shine, and they seized all of them with aplomb.
Giuseppe Pietraroia’s chorus too was vocally impressive. If it carried less conviction dramatically, that was the fault of Maria Lamont’s production, and here I must make a clear distinction, as so often happens not just in Victoria but in many operatic centers, between the musical excellence of a production and its dramatic shortcomings.
With the curtain up during the overture—already a bad sign—the chorus members, in 21st-century dress, busily set up the stage with furniture and decorations. They then sang about waiting for the Queen here, whereupon three personages in fancy dress made their entrance. That, at least, was what it looked like.
My wife, who is less literal-minded than I am, did not find the juxtaposition of modern and 16th-century figures on stage as absurd as I did. She realized at once that the chorus was imagining the historical scenes that were about to be played. There was, to be sure, a certain strength in the concept—but it was a strength quite at odds with the nature of the work as Donizetti and Giuseppe Bardari, his librettist, imagined it.
I wish opera directors were not so often determined, refusing to trust in their audience’s perceptiveness, to make explicit what opera composers left implicit. Without such tinkering, Maria Stuarda is an irresistibly universal work of art, for it presents emotions common to all of humanity directly and without any distracting Verfremdungseffekt. In this production, as is almost always the case, the effect of using an essentially modern—or postmodern—framing device was not to enhance universality, but to remove any chance of it by thrusting the thought of period into the audience’s minds.
It ought to be unnecessary to point out that opera works differently from literature designed to be read. A novelist describes: the creator of an opera, or of any theatrical work, presents. Usually, a composer presents without inserting an element that mediates between spectacle and spectator. (There are exceptions, such as Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, where the emphatically Christian interpretation superimposed on the plot by the Male and Female Chorus serves as a distraction at least to any non-Christian audience member, thus weakening the impact of what is otherwise a profoundly moving story.) When a writer like Barry Unsworth or Arturo Perez-Reverte creates a plot that intermingles elements of present and past, the result, for a reader, is the enrichment of both. When an opera production introduces that sort of duality on the stage, the effect, for an audience member, is to damage the unmediated impact of either, by drawing attention away from plot content and directing it instead toward plot mechanics.
In this production, when the historical characters were on stage by themselves, the story worked beautifully. This was not only because of the cast’s talents, but also because, in all justice, it must be said that Ms. Lamont marshaled her characters with clarity and skill on and in Camellia Koo’s handsome sets and costumes, if with occasional disregard for the social niceties of interaction between a 16th-century sovereign and her subjects. She could not, moreover, resist one piece of unnecessary, and damaging, spelling out. Whether historically or not I am uncertain, but clearly in the plot of this opera, Mary’s keeper, Talbot, is something of a closet Catholic, who reveals a cassock under his cloak when he receives Mary’s confession; this, however, was not good enough for Ms. Lamont, who had to press the point by having him dressed throughout in the sort of ecclesiastical-looking long cloak that he would surely not have got away with wearing as a nobleman attached to Elizabeth’s strictly Protestant court.
In any case, after what might be termed the one-period scenes, the present-day observers inevitably reappeared to remind us that, ah yes, we’re modern, and these characters are old-time personages. And the final catastrophe was weakened by another directorial clever idea, with Elizabeth’s sudden reappearance in a tableau at the back of the stage, toward which the condemned woman was permitted to walk unharmed instead of being led off to execution. Dramatically, then, this was a very mixed bag, but the music, and the musicians, ensured a triumph for an opera that deserves to be as firm a fixture in the repertoire as anything Donizetti wrote.