Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Joyce DiDonato is Vocally and Dramatically Convincing in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2012

April 29th, 2012

Houston Grand Opera, earlier this month premiered Verdi’s “Don Carlos”, based on German dramatist Friedrich Schiller’s late 18th century play about interpersonal conflicts within the Spanish royal family during the period of the 16th century Catholic Inquisition.

The opera company’s next offering was Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda”  an opera from three decades earlier, itself based on Schiller’s play “Mary Stuart”, about interpersonal conflicts between two queens, both of England’s Tudor dynasty, during the 16th century European efforts  to re-establish Roman Catholicism in England.

Schiller’s plays highlight these emotional interrelationships of royal personages. whose personal lives are impacted by historical movements that try to impose uniformity of religious thought on the populations over whom they reign.

The thematic similarities between the two opera productions permitted Houston audiences to witness two important 19th century operatic works, both of which are in the process of critical re-evaluation. A further parallel between the two productions is that the artists singing the title role in each of each opera (Brandon Jovanovich, the Don Carlos, and Joyce DiDonato, the Mary Stuart) chose the Houston Grand Opera for important role debuts.

Opera is not a particularly efficient medium for presenting historical events, but opera – 19th century opera, especially – can be very effective in portraying such human emotions as love, hate, jealousy and despair. Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” (or “Mary Stuart” as Houston Grand Opera calls it, deferring to the title of Schiller’s play) is just such a vehicle for translating emotion into dramatic rhythms and arresting melodies.

Joyce DiDonato’s Maria Stuarda

It is significant that mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s role debut in Donizetti’s quasi-historical opera about Mary, Queen of Scots (“Maria Stuarda”), took place at the Houston Grand Opera, a company closely associated with her career.

DiDonato’s commitment to the opera’s “soprano” role of Maria Stuarda comes several years after she had successfully performed the “mezzo” role of Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I) in Geneva.  She demonstrated that the key to both roles, rather than the role’s range, is the ability of the artist to handle each role’s abundance of coloratura expressiveness intermixed with highly dramatic moments.

(Confirming the potential interchangeability of the two lead roles, DiDonato is scheduled to perform the “soprano” role at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera with soprano Elza van den Heever in the “mezzo” role.)

[Below: Maria Stuarda (Joyce DiDonato, center, in red dress) offers a prayer for her soul in which her companions join; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

DiDonato’s Houston Mary Stuart had none of the feel of a “star turn”, where a diva appears more or less as herself to display her technical abilities, but, instead, as a fully realized portrait of the conflicted historical figure.

The confrontation between the queens that is the dramatic highpoint of this opera did not, in fact, actually happen, but the sentiments that Schiller and Donizetti revealed in each character vividly represented the worldviews of each of the historical persons and of large segments of English society that were the partisans of one over the other.

Donizetti’s Mary (like Schiller’s and their historical counterpart) was convinced of the rightness of her claim to the English throne, the reasonableness of her demands (she conceded Elizabeth’s occupation of the English throne, if Elizabeth would name her to be the successor), and the injustice of being imprisoned by Elizabeth for two decades. Recently condemned by the English courts to death, Mary sought an audience (that in play and opera is arranged by Leicester and Talbot) with Elizabeth to plead for clemency.

Elizabeth, unconvinced of Mary’s sincerity, or the political wisdom of granting her a pardon, is hesitant to overturn the English court’s verdict. That enrages Mary, who insults the English sovereign, thereby confirming Mary’s imminent execution. Mary’s insult (vil bastarda) is the climax of a riveting scene, which is reinforced by the highly dramatic rhythmic structure of Donizetti’s melodic line.

[Below: Overcome with anger, Mary Stuart (Joyce DiDonato, left center, in blue) denounces Queen Elizabeth (Katie van Kooten, right) as illegitimate, while Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury (Robert Gleadow, left, in background) is horrified; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The scenes before and after the theatrically gripping confrontation provide DiDonato’s Mary with the opportunity for introspection. Donizetti’s melodic structure, which DiDonato sings with beautiful phrasing and timbre, is utilized by DiDonato to convey convincingly the full emotions of the doomed Queen of Scots.

Katie Van Kooten’s Elisabetta

Queen Elizabeth was played by Katie Van Kooten, whom I had seen previously at Houston Grand Opera in key roles in Benjamin Britten operas [see Incandescent Houston “Midsummer Night’s Dream” – January 25, 2009 and Anthony Dean Griffey’s Imposing Peter Grimes – Houston Grand Opera, November 12, 2010.] Her portrait of Elizabeth as an emotional, mercurial and yet, grounded, sovereign was effective, and she seemed always comfortable with the role’s vocal challenges.

[Below: Katie Van Kooten as Elisabetta; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Eric Cutler’s Leicester

The historical Leicester was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth who was chosen by Queen Elizabeth to be her candidate to become the husband of Queen Mary and was made an earl as part of Elizabeth’s scheme (that, of course, did not come to pass).

The Leicester was sung by Eric Cutler, who is one of the leading Donizetti tenors of our era. Once again, he made a strong impression, with his bright-sounding voice and towering physical presence.

[Below: Tenor Eric Cutler is Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester; edited image of a promotional photograph.]

In the opera he is clearly empathetic to both queens and engages himself in trying to effect a reconciliation between them and Mary’s pardon. The historical Leicester, after Mary’s death, was returned to Elizabeth’s favor by fighting for England against the Spanish Armada two years’ later and in time died a natural death.

(Cutler was ill when the production photographs were taken. However, he appears in photographs of Leicester’s costume for the Stephen Lawless production in Toronto on which I reported previously. See The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Stephen Lawless’ “Maria Stuarda” in Toronto – May 4, 2010.)

Robert Gleadow’s Talbot and Oren Gradus’ Cecil

If Leicester represents the historical movement promoting reconciliation between the queens, the characters of Talbot and Cecil represent opposing segments of English society. Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, represents those who appear outwardly loyal to Queen Elizabeth and the Anglican church, but who in secret are practicing Roman Catholics, and desire Mary’s pardon and eventual succession to the throne. Robert Gleadow, his lyrical bass-baritone nicely balancing the high voices and Gradus’ basso lines, was a solid Talbot.

[Below: Robert Gleadow is Giorgio Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury; edited image, based on a Keith Penner photograph.]

Cecil, the historical Lord Burleigh, is principally concerned with the weakness of England, in danger through being confronted by a powerful coalition of European powers against it. He is anxious that Mary, who, while alive, provides the opportunity for those powers to force Mary onto the English throne, be executed. Oren Gradus, as Cecil, projected the image of a Machiavellian figure, ready to do whatever needs to be done to protect the powers of the state.

[Below: Cecil (Oren Gradus, right) implores Elisabetta (Katie Van Kooten, left) not to delay the execution of a disruptive force to the kingdom; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The production, whose stage director was Kevin Newbury and whose sets were by Neil Patel, was created by the Minnesota Opera Scenic Studios and are owned by the Minnesota Opera. It was serviceable and interesting. The costumes by Jessica Jahn had the aura of Elizabethan authenticity. The conducting by Patrick Summers was invariably appropriate to the task.

The Donizetti Revival

I have spoken about what I regard as a 21st century “second stage” of the Donizetti Revival, first associated with such mid-20th century divas as Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe and Beverly Sills. In this second stage, no longer are the Donizetti operas written in the 1830s and early 1840s regarded simply as “star turns” but are beginning to be taken seriously as dramatically valid, musically sophisticated operas.

I believe we are still early in this multi-decade re-evaluation of Donizetti operas. The Houston production, starring DiDonato, advances this re-evaluation, as will her scheduled Met performances in future months.

For my reviews of other Joyce DiDonato performances, see: Festival Casting for Lyric Opera’s “Nozze di Figaro” – Chicago, March 9, 2010, and also,

Florez and DiDonato Dominate Los Angeles Opera’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” – December 6, 2009, and also,

S. F. Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007.

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