Strong operatic effort compels 'Maria Stuarda'

Joyce DiDonato, as the title character of Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda," together with the cast delivers a compelling performance at the Met.
Joyce DiDonato, as the title character of Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda," together with the cast delivers a compelling performance at the Met. (KEN HOWARD / Metropolitan Opera)
Posted: January 17, 2013

No corner of the opera repertoire has had so much hard luck at the Metropolitan Opera as bel canto.

Thrilling star vehicles on good days, stale and inconsequential otherwise, the serious operas of Donizetti and Bellini seem to simply need the right singers to achieve redemption since the heydays of Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills.

But the success of Maria Stuarda, which had a successful Met debut on New Year's Eve and will be simulcast at 12:55 p.m. Saturday at six area movie theaters, isn't just due to Joyce DiDonato in the title role. A complete operatic village (and a smart, committed one) has made this opera (not Donizetti's best) compelling in its own singular way. Considering that key members of the limp, season-opening Elixir of Love team are prominently featured in Maria Stuarda, what's the key difference? Properly channeled fury.

DiDonato (an Academy of Vocal Arts graduate who returns periodically) always rises to dramatic challenges. But in Maria Stuarda (with lowered vocal lines similar to those adapted by Janet Baker), she is more controlled. Instead of muscling the character into being, DiDonato (at the New Year's Eve opening) employed every possible musical tool, down to cadenzas that other singers might use just for ornamental purposes.

Much the same could be said of Anna Netrebko in last-season's Anna Bolena. But she lacked a formidable nemesis. With the Stuarda libretto contriving to have the imprisoned title character confront her oppressor Queen Elizabeth I, DiDonato faces down Elza van den Heever, whose soprano is thicker than DiDonato's agile mezzo, but is her match, thanks partly to stage director David McVicar's strategic character expositions.

The isolation of Elizabeth's singular life is conveyed by van den Heever's bullying, masculine, somewhat disjointed body language, which has the cultivated strangeness of a bonsai tree. The fact that Mary maintains her pride - even at the expense of her life - is suggested by DiDonato's greater physical fluidity. Their default mode is physical restraint: If the voice is doing what it should, no more theatrical information is necessary.

At the opening, conductor Maurizio Benini was with the singers every step of the way, underscoring every interpretive choice. Was this the same conductor who led such a routine Elixir of Love? As the Earl of Leicester, the go-between with the two warring monarchs, Matthew Polenzani also transformed his demure Elixir self into a singer willing to go to the emotional maximum. And if the Earl of Shrewsbury looks familiar, it's Curtis Institute graduate Matthew Rose.

The handsome sets convey the enormity of the geopolitical forces bearing down on both women who, as DiDonato has pointed out in interviews, would have been close friends rather than bitter enemies in a different era.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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