United Kingdom Gaetano Donizetti, Maria Stuarda: (Sung in Italian with surtitles in English and Welsh). Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera (on tour) / Robin Newton (conductor), Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno, 21.11.2013. (RJW)
Elizabetta – Camilla Roberts
Maria Stuarda – Judith Howarth
Roberto – Bruce Sledge
Giorgio Talbot- Alastair Miles
Guglielmo Cecil – Gary Griffiths
Anna (Hannah) Kennedy – Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Director – Rudolf Frey
Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Of all the three Donizetti operas in this Tudor trilogy presented by Welsh National Opera, Maria Stuarda had the most fraught genesis. Despite those fraught beginnings it has been one of the earliest of Donizetti’s operas to come back into fashion in the 1960s and 70s, the title role being espoused by the likes of Joan Sutherland, Leyla Gencer Beverly Sills and Montserrat Caballé. A production at English National Opera in 1982 with Janet Baker and Rosalind Plowright was well received despite some liberties with the story. In January 2013 a performance from New York’s Metropolitan Opera was transmitted live worldwide with Joyce DiDonato’s portrayal being widely praised. I understand she is scheduled to appear in the eponymous role in a new production at Covent Garden in July 2014.
At the time of the composition of Maria Stuarda in 1834 Donizetti had embarked on the richest period of his career. With the death of Bellini the previous year he was in a pre-eminent position among the many Italian opera composers of the day. Of his previous operas at that date, nearly half of them had been composed for Naples and he returned there early in 1834 with a contract to write one serious opera each year for the Royal Theatre, the San Carlo. Things looked up for him even more when, in June, by command of the King of Naples, he was appointed professor at the Royal College of Music in Naples.
When the renowned librettist Romani failed to come up with a libretto for the contracted opera, Donizetti turned to a young student, Giuseppe Bardari, who converted Schiller’s play of 1800, with its imagined dramatic confrontation between the two Queens – an encounter that never happened in real life. In the opera the meeting does not go as Leicester hopes with Elisabeth chiding Maria beyond the latter’s patience, and in the famous confrontation the Catholic Stuart Queen Maria breaks and responds to Elisabeth’s chiding and demeaning by referring to the Protestant English Queen Elisabetta as Impure daughter of Anne Boleyn with the famous phrase Profanato e il soglio inglese, vil bastards, dal tuo pie! (The English throne is profaned, despicable bastard, by your presence!). During the dress rehearsal this dramatic confrontation caused a physical fight between the singers concerned! Two reasons are suggested for what followed. First, that it was the news of the words used reached the Royal Palace, where Queen Christina, wife of King Ferdinand of Naples, and a descendent of Mary Stuart, objected. Second, that the act of confession on stage, offered to Maria by Talbot, offended catholic sensibilities. Whichever, the King acted as censor and banned the new opera. Donizetti was not in a position to resist when required to set the music to another text. The subject chosen was related to the safer one of the strife between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. With some new music it was presented as Buondelmonte, but it was not a success.
As a consequence of the Naples cancellation, and at the insistence of the diva Maria Malibran, Donizetti sought to have the opera, staged as originally conceived in Milan where it received its premiere at the end of 1835. Again the censors intervened and only one performance was given with the original words before they were watered down.
This WNO performance was to have its offstage traumas with the withdrawal of the scheduled singer for the major role of Elisabeth. However, the thoroughness of preparation by WNO of the cover casts, of which quality I have commented before, not least in the 2010 staging of Tosca and earlier La Traviata, allowed Camilla Roberts to step in and give a very assured sung and acted performance in a production that was full of directorial idiosyncrasies – or, more bluntly, idiocies. Thankfully these quirks, allied to the bleak black stage design and costumes, not least that for Elizabeth (which left her looking like a dominatrix, complete with whip at the meeting of the two Queens) were overcome by the cast along Donizetti’s dramatic music.
The stage additions were two back-to-back rooms on the stage revolve, one a lounge for Elisabeth, the second to represent the sparse accommodation for Maria. The latter was open fronted and stood a good two feet above the stage with no means of access, that is, without steps up. Consequently Maria and her maid Anna had to scramble up and down, or on one occasion jump down. Not very becoming and certainly a hazard for a lady in heeled knee boots. If this omission was a consequence of restricted stage space at Venue Cymru then the designer needs to learn her trade properly. When no movement of the revolve occurred (ie at the end as Mary ascends for her execution along with retinue) steps were provided for the men concerned and Anna and the Maria herself. As to the references to Fotheringay Castle, there was not even a projection!
I have referred to idiocies of production. Director Rudolf Frey hails from Austria. By continental Europe director concept and regietheater rules Maria and Anna lighting a couple of fags and Leicester shooting himself with a hand pistol, his corpse being comforted by Maria, would raise no eyebrows, despite the minor matter of this ending being unknown to the composer! I suggested in my review of Anna Bolena that perhaps Tosca was in the week to help balance the books. In fact the first Donizetti was better attended than the Puccini. This was not so for this Maria Stuarda with plenty of empty seats in evidence. This was a pity because the dramatic music and the singing were all one could hope for. I have already referred to Camilla Roberts and merely add that her singing was first rate in variety of tonal colour and expression adding to her consummate acting. Likewise Judith Howarth who, after a shaky vocal start overcame her restricted and unimaginative costume and went from strength to strength. Alastair Miles was more suited to the role of Talbot than on the previous night and seemed back to the form I know him capable of whilst Bruce Sledge gave the best tenor performance of the trilogy, his strong flexible voice, and clear enunciation of the text being heard to good effect. The solo singing was complemented by the contribution of the chorus in this entire trilogy, and none more so than in this opera when so many things on stage conspired otherwise, not least the wholly inappropriate costume of a large bosomed breastplate that Maria donned for her execution.
I can but hope that the rumours that Director Rudolf Frey is scheduled for the new production of Verdi’s Nabucco in the summer of 2014 are wrong. Or, perhaps WNO is keen to follow English National Opera in reducing its attendances and increasing, or acquiring, a deficit!
Robert J Farr
The premiere of this production in Cardiff on September 9th has also been reviewed on this website.