Last Chance for Elaborate Maria Stuarda in Stockholm

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Donizetti Maria Stuarda Soloists, Royal Stockholm Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Pier Giorgio Morandi (conductor), Royal Stockholm Opera 24.4.2015 (Reprise premiere) (GF)

Elisabetta: Katarina Dalayman
Maria Stuarda: Cristina Giannelli
Roberto Dudley/Leicester: Bruce Sledge
Georgio Talbot: John Erik Eleby
Guglielmo Cecil: Jens Persson
Anna Kennedy: Sara Olsson

Direction: Ann-Margret Pettersson
Sets: Roj Friberg
Costumes: Karin Erskine
Lighting design: Hans-Åke Sjöquist

This production of Maria Stuarda was premiered on 27 January 1990, and it has been revived before. It is one of Donizetti’s strongest operas and musically it has gone a long way towards the through-composed dramas of the later Verdi. Long gone is the stereotyped formula recitative-aria-cabaletta, even though the ingredients still are there and Verdi may not have been the one he was to be without the influence of Donizetti. The staging here is grandiose with period interiors and ditto costumes. For once it was a relief to see it performed as Verdi possibly would have liked it – and ‘for once’ also possibly implies that we will never see a production of this kind any more. The historically ‘correct’ Rosenkavalier was finally scrapped after 37 years  when it was revived for the umpteenth time almost to the day seven years ago (a new production will be mounted in September) and this Maria Stuarda now meets the same fate. It is easy to understand why. Present day directors like to transport the action to our time to make it understandable for present day audiences – whether they attain the expected effect is a moot point – but there is also a financial aspect: historical costumes are expensive. Just one costume takes about 70 working-hours to produce – a–d there are literally hundreds of them. In other words we were privileged to breathe the atmosphere of 16th century England.

It is true that the atmosphere has its stale moments during the beginning of the opera, which dramatically is fairly static.  But it is necessary for the background and fodder for the conflict that unfolds after the interval. The feeling of standstill is however remedied by the music which is top-notch Donizetti throughout, and once the drama tightens one is hooked – a feeling that is further enhanced by involved acting for the principals, by the thrust and power of the orchestra – Pier Giorgio Morandi knows his Verdi and has through the years achieved a splendid rapport with the orchestra – and not least the chorus, who are in wonderful shape.

The premiere of Otello last month became a nightmare for those responsible when first Iago and then Cassio had to cancel on short notice, resulting in some breath-taking hunt for replacements. A week before the Maria Stuarda premiere it happened again: Lena Nordin, who was Maria at the premiere run 25 years ago and also at the following revivals, was to don the Scottish Queen’s robe once again but fell ill and calls of distress went out from the management. Response arrived from Italian Cristina Giannelli who sang the role in Verona a year ago and at the end of February this year did it again in Warsaw. She was, in other words, well inside the role. Sporting a well-schooled, flexible bright lirico-spinto soprano with elegant phrasing but somewhat gritty tone she not only saved the day but made strong emotional impression. The final scene, just before she is going to de decapitated, was deeply moving. Here Donizetti has provided some of his most celestial music.

The other queen, Elizabeth I, was this time sung by Katarina Dalayman, and I heard some surprised commentaries during the interval that one of the great Wagnerian sopranos should take on an Italian role, and a bel canto role at that. It is true that she has concentrated on the German dramatic repertoire latterly but she was Stockholm’s Carmen a few years ago and prior to that also sang Madeleine in Andrea Chenier to great acclaim, so she isn’t a stranger to Italian repertoire. Moreover Elizabeth is hardly a true bel canto role. The tough queen is more of a Walküre and it is symptomatic that in Beverly Sill’s 1971 recording of Maria Stuarda the queen was sung by the great American Wagner soprano Eileen Farrell. Her steely but velvety tones – a weird combination, I agree – was a great asset to that recording and Ms Dalayman’s queen was certainly regal and unflinching – though she had some moments of vulnerability in her expression. Her pale appearance made her look much older than her cousin – in real life she was only nine years older – but Darnley’s famous portrait from c. 1575 shows an elderly looking pale-faced lady and this may well have been the model.

Leicester, whose liaisons with both the queens makes him central to the conflict, was sung by the American lyric tenor Bruce Sledge. He wore some slight likeness to the young Pavarotti – though several sizes smaller – and his voice wasn’t wholly dissimilar to Pavarotti’s either, but some sizes smaller. He made a good impression, sang tastefully and never overtaxed his voice. As Talbot John Erik Eleby added another fine portrait to his long list of memorable characters and he sang with noble authority and rounded tone. Young Jens Persson was a distinct Cecil and Sara Olsson did what she could with the little she had to do as Anna Kennedy.

This production will run until 20 May and is, so far as one can judge, the last opportunities to see Maria Stuarda in Stockholm in the foreseeable future. Grab the opportunity. It’s worth the outlay!

Göran Forsling

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