WNO’s Maria Stuarda Fails to Communicate Spirit of Tudor England

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Donizetti, Maria Stuarda (Production Premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Operas, Graeme Jenkins (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 13.9.2013 (GPu)
Elizabetta – Adina Nitescu
Maria Stuarda – Judith Howarth
Roberto – Bruce Sledge
Giorgio Talbot– Alastair Miles
Guglielmo Cecil – Gary Griffiths
Anna (Hannah) Kennedy – Rebecca Afonwy-Jones

Conductor – Graeme Jenkins
Director – Rudolf Frey
Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris
Musical Preparation – Stephen Wood
Language Coach – Isabella Radcliffe
Stage Manager – Katie Heath-Jones
Production Manager – Robert Pagett

Welsh National Opera has extensively publicised its current season of Donizetti operas – Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux – under the banner of ‘The Tudors’. It has even commissioned a special “new digital experience” (a glorified questionnaire) under the title “I am Tudor, Are You” which can be ‘experienced online [http://www.iamtudor.co.uk/].

Unfortunately what has emerged with great clarity after the first two instalments of this ‘trilogy’ is that these are actually productions which are not interested in these as ‘Tudor’ operas, not interested, that is, in the historical contexts of the stories they tell. Donizetti and his librettists were not, of course, historians, and were altogether untroubled by any remotely pedantic need for historical accuracy or verisimilitude. Yet the works they produced demonstrated a fair understanding of the spirit (as opposed to the mere ‘facts’) of the history they were (re)creating. They understood, for example, the importance of the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism in the history of Tudor England, a conflict which explicitly (and implicitly) underlies so much in these operas. They understood a good deal about the way in which the interplay of political situation and personal desire was central to the events which make up the period’s historical narrative. The operas (both musically and textually) have a sense (whether it is, or should be the same sense in all three of them is debatable) of self-consistent social world with a coherent sense of values) even if many of those values are fiercely contested (as they are in all but a few rare societies and historical moments).

In setting the first two of these operas (and one suspects the same will be true of Roberto Devereux) in an effectively timeless ahistorical world – in the use of costumes which don’t belong fully to any specific time and place (let alone Tudor England), in the use of sparse, black-box sets almost wholly lacking in historically specific detail, in allowing the social and moral mores of quite different historical periods to co-exist – and by not engaging seriously with such relevant historical issues as religious conflict – these productions have robbed Donizetti’s operas of one of their necessary dimensions. Donizetti and his librettists may have created a Romantic view of the Tudors, but at least it was a view of the Tudors, even if wasn’t (naturally) that of modern historians. WNO’s  directors of this trilogy don’t seem to have a view of the Tudors, don’t, pace the company’s publicity, really see the operas as ‘about’ the Tudors. Some operas (those of Wagner come to mind) do, of course, present narratives so archetypal that ‘timeless’ productions can (sometimes) work very well. But these Donizettian works are too historically grounded (for all the freedoms they take with historical ‘fact’), are too culturally specific that they struggle to survive such treatment. Which is a shame, given that they are fine works (once one has adjusted to the conventions of their era) and that both of the first two productions have been of a generally high standard musically. There is, though, an uncomfortable divorce between the musical performances and the ethos of the productions. This was particularly true of Rudolf Frey’s reading of Maria Stuarda.

Not content with the historical improbabilities and implausibilities intrinsic to Giuseppe Bardari’s libretto, Frey piles on more and more egregious ones, taking us further and further away from any sense that this is a ‘Tudor’ opera. He gives us a Mary Queen of Scots who treats confession as an opportunity for fetishistic sexual play (and that just before her execution) and who, for her execution, dons a kind of stiff moulded bodice, full-breasted and heavily nippled. In Bardini’s libretto Leicester is among those who lament Mary as she walks to the scaffold, joining Talbot, Anna and Mary’s household in insisting that she is “innocente, infamata”. In Frey’s production he commits suicide, shooting himself with a wholly silent pistol. Perhaps Frey was influenced in the use of the pistol by having seen two of Leicester’s portraits in which had himself painted with wheel-lock guns and perhaps even by the knowledge that in the mid 1580s Leicester bought a number of pistols (the late sixteenth-century fascination with, and fear of, pistols, is the subject of Lisa Jardine’s fine study, The Awful End of Prince William the Silent, 2005). However the historical Leicester died at his country house in Oxfordshire in September 1588, the year after the execution of Mary, following a bout of malarial fever. Given the sixteenth-century view of suicide as the greatest of sins, the casualness of Leicester’s onstage act was utterly ‘non-Tudor’.

In amongst – above, one might say – the dreary nonsense of the production, there was some fine music to be heard. As Elizabetta, Adina Nitescu sang with power and authority, though somewhat unvaried in tone and sometimes decidedly strident at the top of her range. Judith Howarth was in splendid vocal form as Maria, emotionally expressive, simultaneously strong and vulnerable, able to deploy a wide vocal range and some brilliant coloratura. In the final scenes of the opera Howarth transcended the vulgarity which characterised much of the staging and realised Bardari and Donizetti’s conception of a Mary relatively serene and purged, able to approach death freed of the jealousy and desire for revenge which has evidently motivated her earlier. Howarth’s was probably the stand out performance in the cast, but no one let the side down. Bruce Sledge sang Leicester (‘Roberto’) with a balance of lyricism and power that at times made the role seem like a prototype of more than one Puccini hero! Gary Griffiths sang securely and created a plausibly menacing Cecil – it wasn’t hard to believe that this was the man who encouraged the creation of Sir Francis Walsingham’s highly efficient network of spies and did much to sustain it. Alastair Miles seemed much more comfortable as Talbot than he had as Henry VIII in Anna Bolena; he made of Talbot (Earl of Shrewsbury) a genuinely sympathetic figure capable of real human warmth and painfully torn between conflicting loyalties. Bardari’s deployment of the layman Talbot as confessor to Mary may not make theological sense but contains within a shrewd historic perception. As the outstanding modern biographer of Mary, John Guy writes of Talbot, “he was a Protestant but only just, and knew better than anyone the sort of contradictions involved in dealing with Mary”. The real Talbot was Mary’s custodian for fifteen years. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones acquitted herself well in the relatively unrewarding role of Anna Kennedy (a character who seems effectively to have been the invention of Schiller in his tragedy Maria Stuart of 1800). In the duet between Mary and Anna which opens Act II Afonwy-Jones sang affectingly and intelligently.

The work of the chorus and the orchestra gave no significant reason for complaint (save a few brief moments of inexact ensemble in the orchestra) and many more reasons to praise. The orchestral score of Maria Stuarda is particularly fine, quicksilver in its delineation of emotion and emotional change, colourful in its support of the soloists, and under the direction of Graeme Jenkins we were treated to an impressive reading of the score. Indeed, as I have suggested, musically there was very little to cause unease and much to relish. The problems lay elsewhere.


Glyn Pursglove