The Seattle Opera presented its first ever performance of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart)”, an opera that requires the casting of two vocally impressive and dramatically effective sopranos as the rival queens, Elizabeth the First of England and Mary, Queen of Scots.
Although the Seattle Opera originally intended that two casts would share the lead parts of Mary, Elizabeth and Leicester, the illness of Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia required a change in casting assignments.
Joyce El-Khoury’s Mary Stuart
Canadian lyric soprano Joyce El-Khoury’s role debut as Mary Stuart (and Seattle Opera debut) was to have occurred 20 hours later at the second cast’s Sunday matinee performance. El-Khoury agreed to sing both the Saturday evening and Sunday matinees (as well as sing in the final dress rehearsals for both casts).
El-Khoury had a triumphant performance, indeed an triumphant weekend of performances (my review of her second performance less than 21 hours later appears at Review: Joyce El-Khoury’s second “Maria Stuarda” in 21 Hours displays style and endurance – Seattle Opera, February 28, 2016.)
[Below: Joyce El-Khoury as Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Stuarda is a role requiring extraordinary breath control. El-Khoury took on the role’s challenges in stride. Throughout the evening, she exhibited flawless vocal technique, while displaying her character’s dramatic vulnerability through her vocal expressiveness, projecting pianissimi and demonstrating a seamless legato.
Its most famous challenge takes place in the opera’s final moments (the Gran Scena e Preghiera) in which Mary sustains a high G for nine measures then ascends, without a break, up to a high B flat, while the chorus repeats the hypnotic melody of Deh! Tu di un umile preghiera. El-Khoury successfully navigated these treacherous passages (in both performances).
In my previous interview with her [Rising Stars: An Interview with Joyce El-Khoury], she expressed her commitment to Donizetti and Verdi roles of women who exhibit strength of character. El-Khoury presented a vivid portrait of the doomed Mary Stuart, exemplifying such strength.
Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Queen Elizabeth I
Seattle audiences have already taken to heart the fine performances of Mary Elizabeth Williams in such diverse operas as George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” [Seattle Opera’s Worthy “Porgy and Bess” – July 30, 2011] and Verdi’s “Nabucco” [See Review: Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Beautifully Sung Abigaille, Deep Casting Enrich New “Nabucco” – Seattle Opera, August 8, 2015.
[Below: Mary Elizabeth Williams as Queen Elizabeth I; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Williams complemented El-Khoury’s Stuarda with Williams’ own extraordinary ability to convey emotion through her vocal expressiveness, Williams convincingly displaying Elizabeth’s jealousy and her fear of Maria’s “seduction” of Elizabeth’s close friends and confidantes,
John Tessier’s Leicester
I have been an admirer of John Tessier’s French repertory roles, especially his Gerald [Luna, Tessier and Bilgili in Stylishly Sung “Lakme” – Opera de Montreal, September 24, 2013]. I found his performance as Roberto, the Earl of Leicester, to be effective.
[Below: John Tessier as Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Tessier’s pleasing tenor vibrato adds a hint of exoticism to the complex role of Leicester, based on a real life Elizabethan nobleman intriguer, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.
Michael Todd Simpson’s Lord Cecil
Lord Cecil, sung by sonorous lyric bass-baritone Michael Todd Simpson, is the role that represents the raison d’etat first for Mary’s two-decade imprisonment and then for her execution. The role was performed with chilling effectiveness by Simpson.
[Below: Michael Todd Simpson as Lord Cecil; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Simpson, a graduate of Seattle’s Young Artists’ program [see my interview at Rising Stars – An Interview with Michael Todd Simpson] is one of three cast members scheduled for each of Seattle Opera’s seven performances of the work.
Weston Hurt’s Talbot
Another of the cast scheduled for all seven performances is baritone Weston Hurt, whose recent performance in the lead role of Verdi’s “Nabucco” I had praised [see Review: Hurt, Bauer, Angeletti, Barton, Thomas in “Nabucco” – Seattle Opera, August 9, 2015].
[Below: George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury (Weston Hurt, left) informs Mary Stuart (Joyce El-Khoury, right) that she has been condemned to die; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Representing the portion of the English nobility who were deeply troubled by England’s break with universal Catholicism, Hurt’s portrayal of Talbot (a character based on the historic George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury) was sympathetically drawn and well-sung.
Dialogo Delle Due Regine
Rarely performed in the first half of the 20th century, “Maria Stuarda” has become one of the centerpieces of the Donizetti Revival, with its intense displays of emotions between the Queen of England, her trusted chief adviser Lord Cecil, her sometimes lover the Earl of Leicester, the conflicted Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, Elizabeth’s prisoner Mary Queen of Scots and Mary’s maid-in-waiting, Anna.
What, I believe, attracted Donizetti to Mary Stuart, the famous play by the great German playwright Friedrich Schiller, was the famous scene in which Queen Elizabeth is insulted by her captive, Mary Queen of Scots.
[Below: the powerless Mary Stuart (Joyce El-Khoury, right) displays defiance of Queen Elizabeth I (Mary Elizabeth Williams, left); edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Although virtually all historians would agree that no such meeting ever took place, the sentiments that are evident in both Schiller’s play and Donizetti’s opera are historically plausible. More important for the opera audience, the meeting, culminating in Mary calling Elizabeth a vil bastarda has a theatrical effectiveness that trumps all charges that bel canto opera favors vocal virtuosity at the expense of drama.
The confrontation between the queens ends Act II of the opera (in contemporary practice, the opera is performed with one intermission that occurs at the end of the second act) with a strong dramatic flourish.
The final scene of the opera is, in a different way, equally effective – the chorus, representing Mary Stuart’s Catholic friends – engaged in a powerful prayer. Using a simple melody, sung first by El-Khoury’s Mary, then repeated in several variations by the full chorus, the scene builds towards a climax in which Leicester in despair and Mary Stuart in resignation submit to Mary’s ultimate fate.
[Below: the men and women who console Mary Stuart in her final hours (Seattle Opera chorus); edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
I enthusiastically recommend the Seattle Opera production of “Maria Stuarda” to both the veteran opera-goer and persons new to opera.
Because I am reviewing both the Seattle Opera’s first and second performances of the work, my comments on Renee Rapier’s Anna and other aspects of the musical performance will be deferred to that report. I will further report on Kevin Newbury’s production and staging and on Jessica Jahn’s costumes, as well as the influence of German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s ideas on Italian Romantic opera and on “Maria Stuarda” in particular. I will also have a word about the images of the young Tudor girls (in this production, portrayed by young supernumeraries.)