Sparring Divas Outstanding in Met’s Maria Stuarda

Donizetti, Maria Stuarda: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, conducted by Maurizio Benini. Met-Live Broadcast to the Barbican Cinema, London, 19.1.2013. (JPr)


Joyce DiDonato (Maria Stuart)
Elza van den Heever (Elisabetta)
Matthew Polenzani (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester)
Joshua Hopkins (William Cecil)
Matthew Rose (George Talbot)
Maria Zifchak (Jane Kennedy)


Director: Sir David McVicar
Set & Costume Designer: John Macfarlane
Choreographer: Leah Hausman
Director of Live Transmission: Gary Halvorson

MariaStuarda Act IPhoto: Ken  Howard for Metropolitan Opera
Maria Stuarda Act I
Photo: Ken Howard for Metropolitan Opera

Maria Stuarda is a typical early nineteenth-century Italian tragic opera by Donizetti with a libretto by Giuseppe Bardari that itself was based on Andrea Maffei’s translation of a related 1800 play by Friedrich Schiller. They all took great liberties with genuine history as the great confrontation between Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I that ends Act I never took place and they never actually met. It is also rather over-sympathetic towards Mary who was as capable of political intrigue and machinations as her cousin. However, she would have been a heroine to the Italian audiences of the day who would have championed her as a Roman Catholic who faces up to a Protestant queen and dies as a martyr for her religion.

I first saw this opera – as Mary Stuart – with English National Opera in April 1982. It was put on to mark Janet Baker’s farewell performances with the company and she gave a typically sensitively phrased and subtle portrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots opposite Rosalind Plowright as Elisabeth, David Rendall’s Dudley, Alan Opie as Cecil and John Tomlinson as Talbot. It was conducted by the late Charles Mackerras and as recorded from those performance is still available on CD from Chandos … those were the days at ENO!

Director, David McVicar, and the Metropolitan Opera have embarked on the composer’s ‘Tudor Trilogy’ of which this is the second instalment (Anna Bolena opened last season  and Roberto Devereux will be last). McVicar who is often thought-provoking and occasionally controversial in his stagings this side of the Atlantic, has become rather traditional when reaching New York. Rather like his Anna Bolena, in collaboration with his designer – here John Macfarlane – he gives us reasonably nuanced acting from the sumptuously costumed principal singers for Gary Halvorson’s cameras to concentrate on. If staged at the ENO these days I suspect it would be all updated to the modern Elizabethan era but McVicar gives us little more than a sixteenth-century pageant where all concerned stand and deliver, framed by a crowd of static onlookers where needed.

The backstage interviews by Live in HD Host, Deborah Voigt, often resulted in gales of laughter in the Barbican Cinema. This was at its worst when she was glued to her teleprompter and got stuck down blind alleys when asking the lead singers of the forthcoming new Rigoletto about its ‘Las Vegas Rat Pack-era’ setting and getting monosyllabic – and rather unintelligible – responses. With the current opera there were too many references to ‘English history’ and it took a rather taciturn Brit, Matthew Rose, to remind the watching audience that what we were seeing was part of fairly familiar British history! Much was made of the ‘historical research’ behind the production that seemed to consist for many as watching clips on YouTube or sitting through the entire series of Glenda Jackson’s Elisabeth R. Joyce DiDonato named as the inspiration for her Mary, the cinema portrayals of Katherine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave. The young Elza van den Heever interestingly revealed how she had worked out what Ms Voigt described as, Elizabeth’s ‘masculine swagger’ with David McVicar – but the rest of her petulant performance seemed to be channelling Miranda Richardson’s ‘Queenie’ from Blackadder II!

The opening scene is the Palace of Whitehall and there is a big celebration going on as Elizabeth is believed to be ready to accept a marriage proposal from the King of France’s brother. The set evokes the period well and, as Ms Voigt suggested looks like an Elizabethan stage – however John Macfarlane revealed we are to appreciate the platform the action takes place on as that of Mary’s eventual scaffold. There is some colour for these revellers but by the time we get to the second scene, a park outside the prison at Fotheringhay Castle where Elizabeth has had Mary imprisoned, it is all very abstract and grey. This is in contrast to Mary’s happy thoughts of her youth in France and her delight at being outside. For her final scene, in which she signs Mary’s death warrant, Elizabeth is in her full Gloriana persona and McVicar has had several years pass (unlike in Donizetti’s libretto). Ms van den Heever is waddling around her palace apartment, inwardly a shadow of her former self. (Her commitment to the role was such that she had her head shaved so she could wear the queen’s elaborate wigs without the use of a bald cap.) The opera ends with a contrite, though still defiant, Mary walking towards the executioner’s block dressed in red, the colour of Catholic martyrdom.

Indeed Ms van den Heever is to be congratulated on her commitment to both the acting and singing of her role. She admitted in her interview that because of an imposing physique, reminiscent of a young Joan Sutherland, she will never sing the ingénue. Her forthright soprano should see her concentrate eventually on the Wagner repertoire but she was a suitably cruel and implacable Elizabeth and her showdown with Joyce DiDonato’s Mary was outstanding. Another Met Live opera and yet another American singer is seen getting the standing ovation they deserve – and indeed Ms DiDonato was a quite magnificent Mary. This role has been sung by sopranos, as well as, mezzo-sopranos and as one of the latter her performance was a masterclass of bel canto singing and again also of acting. How wonderfully Ms DiDonato showed how her pious yet indignant character had aged whilst still coping effortlessly with the vocal demands of her final scene.

The male roles are mere ciphers compared to the sparring divas, Elizabeth and Mary; as Roberto Dudley (Roberto), Matthew Polenzani was ardent and vulnerable, Matthew Rose was a very stoic and dignified George Talbot (Giorgio), and Joshua Hopkins’ fine youthful baritone perhaps did not have all the gravitas needed for Elizabeth’s Secretary-of-State Cecil’s political machinations. Maria Zifchak was very touching as the devoted Jane Kennedy (Anna), Mary’s lady-in-waiting, who accompanies her to the scaffold. The chorus were their usual excellent selves in the few moments they get to shine. The conductor, Maurizio Benini, was idiomatically blood-and-thunder in the moments of pure orchestral music but elsewhere did little other than accompany the singing flexibly – but the mere fact he ‘breathed’ with them all meant that they never seemed harried and the Live in HD audience heard some memorable singing from an excellent ensemble.

Jim Pritchard

Check out your local cinema listings as the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD 2012-13 season continues.