Scotland – England 1:1, Zurich’s New Maria Stuarda

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Donizetti, Maria StuardaPhilharmonia Zurich / Enrique Mazzola (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich 8.4.2018. (JR)

Maria Stuarda (c) Monika Rittershaus
Maria Stuarda (c) Monika Rittershaus

Elisabeth I, Queen of England – Serena Farnocchia
Maria Stuarda, Queen of Scotland – Diana Damrau
Roberto, Earl of Leicester – Pavol Breslik
Giorgio Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury – Nicolas Testé
Lord William Cecil, Chancellor of the Exchequer – Andrzej Filonczyk
Anna Kennedy – Hamida Kristoffersen

Director – David Alden
Set and costumes – Gideon Davey
Lighting – Martin Gebhardt
Chorus Master – Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy – Fabio Dietsche

Most opera-goers, especially outside the UK, will not know how Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots were related (Mary was Elizabeth’s first cousin once removed, I believe), nor what precisely happened between these rivals for the English throne. For the sake of opera, it matters not. Donizetti’s librettist followed and simplified Schiller’s version of the story, written in 1800, in which the two protagonists meet and hurl insults at each other (which meeting actually never took place). The opera, composed around 1835, disappeared from the repertoire for a hundred and twenty years, banned initially by the King of Italy, shocked that a Catholic Queen could lose her head to a Protestant Queen, and blocked by censors. It did not find its way to Vienna, Paris or London for a long time, but has recently been undergoing something of a revival.

Donizetti painted Mary Queen of Scots much more sympathetically than her English counterpart. Mary was a Catholic and Italy was of course strongly Catholic. Alden explains in the programme that he tried to present Elisabeth in a warmer light rather than simply as a scheming, cold villain, but I am not sure he succeeded. The Earl of Leicester provides the romantic interest, but his sympathies lie with Mary in the opera; in real life, he pleaded with Elizabeth to have Mary executed.

The original singer of the role of Queen Elisabeth was to have been Salome Jicia, who had come to attention at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, but her place was taken by Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia. Two years ago in Seattle, Farnocchia sang the role of Mary Queen of Scots, so switched allegiance and religion for this production.

When the curtain rises, we see two queens circling a glittering crown and must determine which is which; one wears a magnificent bright yellow gown, the other is in black, with reddish hair, so we guess she is Elizabeth. I am not at all sure the audience, most of whom were Swiss, got that. Elizabeth has the lion’s share of the singing in Act I, until the queens meet in the gardens of Fotheringhay Castle to sling insults at each other. Serena Farnocchia sang very well, including in her low registers, mastering some intricate coloratura, whilst her top notes could veer to a screech. In Act II, Mary comes into her own and Diana Damrau brought the house down after each of her arias with her creamy soprano and glistening high notes. Pavol Breslik apologised for a cold and in the first half of Act I he held back and fired on only three cylinders; as the evening progressed, his voice cleared and he was, thankfully, his usual impressive self.

Nicolas Testé was a solid Talbot, despite having to look like a double-glazing salesman complete with fawn trenchcoat and cheap briefcase, hardly an Earl of Shrewsbury. Lord Cecil was sung, also admirably, by Andrzej Filonczyk, having to contend with looking like Rasputin and wielding an axe throughout (impressive, though, when thwacked into the top of the prompter’s box).

Hamida Kristoffersen sang and especially acted the role of Anna well, although her costume looked as though it was in the wrong opera, perhaps Hänsel und Gretel.

The chorus was lusty, particularly in the final execution scene in which they plead for mercy.

Enrique Mazzola in the pit was fleet-footed and incisive and the orchestra, some horns apart, served him well.

Which brings us, finally, to the production. This was David Alden’s first venture in Zurich. At the final curtain, the reception was decidedly muted; there were neither boos nor cheers. The production had neither dismayed nor excited but perhaps Alden had done as much as he could, given the limited action. A curved wall of grey slabs, at the back of the stage, served as the castle wall and, when a curtain in royal blue was draped over it, it became the Royal Court at Whitehall Castle. A black drop with some chalk graffiti served as the prison or dungeon cell for Queen Mary.

The Queens wore Elizabethan garb with frilly collars, whilst the courtiers and Scottish followers mainly wore modern dress. Leicester looked like a teddy boy at one point, when in a long purple tunic.

Some scenes worked better than others. The courtiers’ arm movements, when pretending to chop off heads, made for a bizarre sequence, but the hunters donning antlers and a stag’s head worked well. Alden threw in some fencers wielding epées and some skeletons for good measure.

The evening belonged to Diana Damrau, even though she ultimately lost her head. Blindfolded Queen Mary lay down on her back, arms stretched out, her shaved head towards the audience. The axe fell and the lights went out. I’d say that was a draw.

John Rhodes

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