Elisabetta Steals the Show in Houston’s “Maria Stuarda”

United StatesUnited States  Donizetti, Maria Stuarda: Soloists, Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Patrick Summers (Conductor), Houston Grand Opera, Houston, Texas, 29.4.2012 (AS)

Maria Stuarda: Joyce DiDonato
Elisabetta: Katie Van Kooten
Leicester: Eric Cutler
Cecil: Oren Gradus
Anna: Catherine Martin
Talbot: Robert Gleadow

Director: Kevin Newbury
Sets: Neil Patel
Costume designer: Jessica Jahn
Lighting designer: D.M. Wood/Michael James Clark

Joyce DiDonato and Katie Van Kooten in "Maria Stuarda" (Photo: Felix Sanchez)

She had it all.  High notes, low notes, ornamentation, striking stage presence.  In her triumphant return to Houston Grand Opera, the native daughter made her role debut in this Maria Stuarda and sang the rest of the cast off the stage.

But enough about Katie Van Kooten. This opera is about Maria Stuarda, right?

Well, it’s supposed to be. But it’s impossible to ignore when an upstart singer steals the spotlight from the established star, and that’s exactly what Van Kooten has done in this production.

Not long removed from her time as a member of the Royal Opera’s young artist program, Van Kooten’s superlative Elisabetta could represent another major step in her burgeoning career. The American soprano warmed up the audience with a bel canto masterclass in her opening scena, executing clean runs and extending into her upper range with a bright, full voice with squillo for miles. She was both authoritative and vulnerable during her duet with Leicester and in all of Elisabetta’s ensembles hers was the most disciplined voice. She’s not a bad actress, either. It would have been easy for Van Kooten to play Elisabetta over the top, yet she portrayed a troubled but not sleazy monarch, maintaining her dignity even in the famously charged confrontation scene with Stuarda. Her “Quella vita a me funesta” brought the house down, as Van Kooten sang with long legato lines that would be the envy of any of her colleagues. Despite her time as a studio artist at Covent Garden and appearances at the Met, Van Kooten has still managed to fly under the radar thus far in her career stateside. That won’t last long if she keeps singing like this. If you had gone into this Maria Stuarda not knowing the cast, you would have left thinking Van Kooten was the superstar, not Joyce DiDonato.

And therein lies the problem.

DiDonato will be taking her Maria Stuarda to the Met this fall, and if the mezzo sings like she did in this production, she’s going to be in big trouble. Throughout the vast majority of the performance, DiDonato struggled to find and maintain pitch. No announcement of her being indisposed was made, nor did she appear to be in vocal distress. Her voice never cracked, nor did she struggle in the higher tessitura of this role normally associated with sopranos. No matter how high or low the score called for DiDonato to sing, the mezzo simply disregarded intonation throughout her range, constantly hovering around but never actually finding the center of the notes she was singing. DiDonato’s fluttery vibrato invariably pushed her off-kilter, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it would be an easier task to identify those moments when she sang in tune than those when she didn’t.

It wouldn’t be fair, however, to say that Maria Stuarda doesn’t fit DiDonato. In fact, she was more than up to the stylistic challenges posed by the role. The Kansas native delivered some excellent trills and sharp runs full of agile coloratura. But while a singer can tailor trills, flowery ornamentation and interpolated high notes to fit her interpretation, surely at the very least we must be objective about something as basic as singing on pitch, regardless of genre or stylistic choices. Her embellishments were fine; problems arose when DiDonato had to sing longer, legato phrases and her voice began to waver off pitch, occasionally to the point of being distracting. Acceptable intonation, rather than a luxury, should be a prerequisite for all singers, let alone those hyped as much as DiDonato. She struggled to maintain vocal balance throughout the evening, and during the confrontation scene in particular she sounded quite shrill at any dynamic above mezzo forte, filling the house with some rather unpleasant sounds.

Yet DiDonato’s performance raises some rather intriguing questions, since despite her poor vocal showing, she managed to give an incredibly moving dramatic account of the doomed queen. During Maria’s cavatina DiDonato completely held the audience in the palm of her hands. The famous preghiera before Maria’s execution earned a similarly roaring applause, DiDonato serving as the centerpiece of a powerful and simple staging that let Donizetti’s glorious music take the spotlight.

But what does it mean when a singer gives a dramatically excellent performance in spite of vocal deficiencies?  Is it more important that the singer move the audience, even if she does so while disregarding basic musical standards such as pitch?  Because this is exactly what DiDonato did—move the audience while disregarding intonation. DiDonato can and has done better.

Fortunately, Houston Grand Opera’s production provided the tools for DiDonato and her colleagues to show their dramatic chops. You won’t find imposing Tudor splendor in these palaces, but you won’t miss it, either. Neil Patel’s sets provide a wonderful example of how to mount an elegant period production on a budget. A series of descending and receding columns allow for smooth scene transitions and an uncluttered stage. Add in some well-appointed costuming and the right mood lighting and voilà—you have everything you need to let director Kevin Newbury and the cast do the rest. Newbury did well to highlight the deeply personal nature of this opera lacking triumphal marches, extravagant battle scenes and other pyrotechnics, as the cast embraced the intimate political intrigue at the core of Schiller’s play and Bardari’s libretto. Proceedings perhaps became a bit too catty on occasion, and the staging definitely garnered a few unintended laughs, but these were by far exceptions to an otherwise solid production.

Apart from DiDonato, the cast had no weak links. Eric Cutler as Leicester did seem pushed to his limits during part of the first act, but he recovered to put in a solid performance that showed him at his best during the ensembles. Bass Oren Gradus sang a polished Cecil, portraying a sinister yet dignified devil on the proverbial shoulder of Van Kooten’s Elisabetta. Catherine Martin, a current member of HGO’s young artist program, showed off a rich mezzo in the few lines she had as Anna. Patrick Summers, who has been doing double duty conducting Don Carlos, led the orchestra in a relatively straightforward reading of the opera that kept things moving. HGO’s chorus sang with class and poignancy.

While HGO’s Maria Stuarda might not be a hit for the reason the company hoped, it could very well be a vehicle to even more prominence for Katie Van Kooten—a prospect the company surely embraces as it helped her to make the very strides that are leading to her gaining more prominence.

But the questions remain. To what extent can a singer be said to have performed well if the performance convinces theatrically but not musically, or vice versa?  Do audiences even care?  At least in Van Kooten the audience had a singer who fulfilled all her duties, dramatic and vocal. At the end of the night, she received the largest applause and rightly so. Van Kooten might not have been the star they came to hear, but they did hear a star.

Aaron Smith