Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Met Opera Review: McVicar Fails in his Second Outing while Didonato Triumphs in Maria Stuarda

By Francisco Salazar
(For the January 4th 2013 performance)

After 200 years in the repertoire, the Met has finally decided to premiere Donizetti's Tudor triology. The Met had originally tapped diva Anna Netrebko to sing all three operas but Netrebko decided on only singing Anna Bolena. David McVicar was hired for the proceedings and Joyce Didonato was tapped for the second of the trilogy Maria Stuarda. 

Last year McVicar directed Anna Bolena and received mixed reviews for his dull sets and his lack of clarity in direction. McVicar promised a more romantic approach to his followup production but proved to be even less convincing. The opera has a red curtain of a painting with a lion and a chicken ( or a rooster) representing the power struggle between Stuarda and Elizabeth. It is a good setup if only I understood whether it was a chicken, a turkey or a rooster. McVicar's opening scene seemed to be theatrical incorporating dance as a celebration to Queen Elizabeth's recent engagement. The set is made up of a big red arch similar to Anna Bolena's red bed and a big table/stage. However once the chorus and the dancer's leave the staging becomes stale with absolutely nothing to look at. Leicester sings his aria standing around and then Elizabeth and Leicester confront each other but again they are simply stand around. I don't fault McVicar completely as it is hard to stage Bel Canto Opera but the problem is that this happens throughout the evening. The two opening scenes while well sung did not do enough to engage the audience in the opera and one only waited impatiently for Didonato playing Maria Stuarda to get on the stage.

The following scene resembled the hunting scene of Anna Bolena. The arch was taken off the stage with trees brought. The set now all black and gray once again had no visuals to look at. However Didonato gave some energy to the production as she entered running into the scene showing delight of being able to leave her prison cell. Her vocal power and stage command made the evening bearable (more on that later). During the  famous confrontation scene where Maria Stuarda calls Elizabeth a "vile bastard" McVicar handles things well making Elizabeth circle Stuarda in a mocking manner. However he quickly converts the dramatic section into a comedy when he has the chorus mumble and react to Stuarda's insults. There is no need to see this as the music says it all. McVicar closes the act with more parking and barking but as I said there is no need for more.

In the second act matters do not improve visually as we see a back drop of a a lion and what looks like a chicken. The painting resembles the curtain but this time instead of it all being red, the colors are dark. The act also has the same table/ stage in the center. The scene which is supposed to take place in a palace looks more like it is a school cafeteria with too much empty space. Ultimately the set looks like drab and uninspired. But it only gets worse as the set changes and another backdrop comes down revealing notes and letters Stuarda wrote in prison. This of course is to show that time passed. The problem with the set is not its lack of creativeness. It is the fact that there is too much empty space and too much black. The stage of the Metropolitan is infamously large and few directors know how to use it. McVicar proves time and again that he is overwhelmed and therefore believes he needs to use it all. Last year where I believed he would give space for Netrebko to act her mad scene in Anna Bolena, he limited her to 10 feet of space making it claustrophobic for the chorus and the singers. For Maria Stuarda he should have had less space for a prison cell especially when there were only singers and they were going to sit for the scene. He opened up the staging where it was almost impossible to see Ms. Didonato and Matthew Rose especially because there was basically no light and both singers were wearing black. As a result they camouflaged.

The final scene opened up the backdrop to reveal a set of stairs and more black. The stairs were black and the chorus was wearing black. The result was no one was seen. McVicar staged it with more parking and barking and only until the end when Stuarda sings her farewell before going to the scaffold, does McVicar decide to do a clever staging. He brings the staircase downstage and reveals Stuarda in a red gown which represents the Catholic Martydom. The color is striking as she walks up the stairs making it a powerful moment. However it is a shame he did not do this earlier in the evening.

Joyce Didonato played the title role of Maria Stuarda. As aforementioned Didonato has the vocal and stage presence for the role but there are shortcomings to her performance. It was apparent in some instances that the role is too heavy for the mezzo soprano. Her opening aria "O nube che Lieve" was sung with delicacy and nostalgia as she recalled her past. Each phrase captured the rich qualities in Donizetti's melodic writing and the aria ended with a gorgeous pianissimo that floated into the theater with ease. However if her aria was perfection her cavatina "Nella pace del mesto riposo" which proceeds the aria saw Ms. Didonato's shortcomings. Her pitch tended to go flat and her high notes brought a grainy vibrato that distracted from the line. While the coloratura runs were spot on, it was clear that Ms. Didonato struggled to get through the piece. It did not get any better during the ensuing duet with Leicester. Didonto's sound became timid and the phrasing lacked any musical direction. It did not help that her partner's voice lacked the lyric sound required for a Donizetti opera.

The following scene was Didonato's big moments and she delivered her insults to Elizabeth with power and command. She stood at the center of the stage and as she delivered her "Vil Bastarda," she looked at Elizabeth with anger and defiance. It was a defining moment in her performance because one immediately knew that Didonato was back in her game.

The second act saw Didonato sing her confession scene "Quando di luce rosea" with resignation and a distinguished anguish. Each phrase had a distinctive color and her pianissimi were sung with tenderness. But it was her prayer with the chorus that really stopped the show. Accompanied by a harp, Didonato had the challenge of singing with the chorus and holding out a top note for about six measures. Didonato not only held the note out but went from a pianissmo to a forte singing over the chorus. It was a moment of ecstasy and it became the most electrifying moment of the performance. All in all Didonato may have been uneven in the performance but her greatest moments made up for all the limitations.

Elza Van Den Heever proved a disappointing counterpart to Ms. Didonato. She failed to excite in any moment and her raspy and grainy voice while well suited for the role did not have the elegance necessary for Donizetti's music.  Her opening aria was the best sung aspect of her performance as it showed some nice phrasing, nice coloring to the music and ultimately some solid high notes. However her singing turned predictable. She sang with accuracy but none of the phrasing or singing was varied and lacked any energy or distinction. Ms. Van Den Heever did excite during the confrontation scene as she mocked Maria Stuarda with her gestures and her vocalism. The coarse tone showed that Elizabeth was never going to forgive Stuarda and was only at the prison to insult her rival queen. Van Den Heever has stated that she is an actress but her walk was one of the most distracting aspects of the production. She walked with a limp and held her back at some points across the stage. It may be accurate to history but it did not translate theatrically. It proved to be tedious and uneven.

In the secondary roles Salvatore Cordella replaced an ill Matthew Polenzani as Leicester. The role is short but it requires some difficult singing. Leicester's tessitura is high and his lines are long. Cordella lacked every single quality. His voice sounded tired and his high notes were forced and had no ring. His middle range reminded one of an old Alfredo Kraus but it was still decent at best. Matthew Rose as Talbot gave Joyce Didonato good support during the confession scene singing with gravitas and authority. Joshua Hopkins as Cecil was solid if not memorable and Maria Zifchak as Anna reminded Met audiences why she is one of the best assets at the Met.

The Met chorus sang was incredible power under the direction of Donald Palumbo and Maurizio Benini gave Donizetti's score character. Benini who gave a refreshing account of L'Elisir d'Amore earlier this season demonstrated that he is perfect for the repertoire. He demonstrated that the bel canto style is not only um pah pah patterns. There was more to this rhythmic style. Each character's music was conducted with distinction. While Leicesters lyrical melodies were conducted with warmth, Elizabeth's rhythmic patterns were given force, precision and forward movement. Finally Maria's music had a tragic and nostalgic character particularly in the prayer with the harp continuo.

The Donizetti operas may not be perfect but up to this point McVicar has failed to do them justice and with the first two productions it is hard for me to ever want to return to see them again. I would prefer a DVD over these deary uninspired productions. Still if one is curious to see this opera it is worth seeing this new production if only for Ms. Didonato's towering performance.    

1 comment:

  1. Maria's opening aria, as with many of the bel canto genre, is in the binary cavatina-cabaletta form: therefore, the cavatina and cabaletta are parts of the entire aria. «O nube che lieve per l'aria t'aggiri» is the cavatina, followed (not preceded) by the cabaletta «Nella pace del mesto riposo».

    «Didonato had the challenge of singing with the chorus and holding out a top note for about six measures»: that famous gesture in the final scene's preghiera lasts 10 measures. Maria's long-sustained high note occupies the first 8, during the 9th Maria's voice rises in pitch, and on the 10th Maria reaches the end of the phrase (the rest of the ensemble comes back in right on that moment).

    «Finally Maria's music had a tragic and nostalgic character particularly in the prayer with the harp continuo»: while the harp accompaniment is almost continuous throughout that piece, it is not a continuo. Continuo (basso continuo/figured bass) is a specific term, referring to the independent bass line which is the bedrock of Baroque music, upon which the appropriate chords are realized. The harp accompaniment is fully written out by Donizetti, and the bass notes only mark the downbeats of every bar/measure.