Opera Warhorses

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

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Review: Joyce El-Khoury’s second “Maria Stuarda” in 21 Hours displays style and endurance – Seattle Opera, February 28, 2016

March 2nd, 2016

The Seattle Opera had divided its seven performances of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda [Mary Stuart]” between two casts, the first scheduled for five performances, the second for two. Lyric soprano Joyce El-Khoury was assigned two performances – a Sunday matinee after the opening Saturday night performance and, a week later, a Saturday night performance.

However, the artist who was to sing the title role in the Saturday night performance came down with a respiratory illness and had to withdraw from the opening night performance. El-Khoury agreed to sing consecutively both the Saturday night and Sunday matinee performances.

I have reported on El-Khoury’s Saturday night success [Review: Seattle Opera’s “Mary Stuart” – Joyce El-Khoury’s, Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Regal Confrontation – February 27, 2016]. Her beautifully controlled, vocally expressive Mary Stuart was exemplary of the style of singing we call bel canto. Remarkably, El-Khoury was able to achieve the same high performance levels for another performance with only 15 hours break between them. Both the Saturday night and Sunday matinee audiences rewarded El-Khoury with uananimous standing ovations.

[Below: Mary Stuart (Joyce El-Khoury, right) has been imprisoned for nearly two decades; edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]


El-Khoury essentially performed with both the first and second casts. For the latter (Sunday matinee) there were two cast changes – Florida soprano Keri Alkema was Elizabeth I and Pennsylvania tenor Andrew Owens was the Earl of Leicester.

Keri Alkema’s Queen Elizabeth I

When Donizetti wished to portray powerful women, he invested their music with imposing runs and leaping intervals.

Alkema’s large voice was used effectively in a portrayal of an insecure English queen, tormented by indecision as  jealous of the attention that her captive cousin received from her intimate friend, Roberto Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and fully capable of using her power to destroy a rival.

[Below: Queen Elizabeth (Keri Alkema, left), decked out in her dress for a royal hunt, show no mercy for the defiant Mary Stuart (Joyce El-Khoury, right); edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]


Andrew Owens’ Earl of Leicester

Lyric tenor Andrew Owens was a creditable Earl of Leicester, whose empathy for the plight of the doomed Mary, led him to a dangerous crisis in his relations with the English Queen.

[Below: Tenor Andrew Owens; edited image of a publicity photograph from andrewowenstenor.com.]


Renee Rapier’s Anna

As an example of luxury casting on the part of Seattle opera, the small role of Mary Stuart’s companion Anna was sung by Renee Rapier, an excellent artist with a major career ahead of her.

[Below: Mary Stuart (Joyce El-Khoury, left) prays with Anna (Renee Rapier, right); edited image, based on a Philip Newton photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]


Kevin Newbury’s Production

The production, created in 2006 for the Minnesota Opera was also seen at the Houston Grand Opera in 2012 [for my review, see Joyce DiDonato is Vocally and Dramatically Convincing in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2012]

[Below: Director Kevin Newbury; edited image of a Simon Pauly photograph from kevinnewbury.com.]


The production uses a unit set, dominated by a moulded gilt ceiling from which columns, murals, or other images would descend to create the background for particular scenes. To assure that scenes flowed smoothly from one to another, furnishings were sparse and would be carried on and offstage by servants or knights in armor. The two Queens – Mary and Elizabeth – would sometimes appear on a wheeled staircase, which might be wood or metal.

[Below: the final scene of Kevin Newbury’s production of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda”; edited image of a production photograph for the Minnesota Opera.]


The libretto for “Maria Stuarda”, although centering on a fictional encounter (the confrontation between the queens at Fotheringay Castle where Mary was imprisoned), abounds in “backstory” references to true historical events (e.g., the suspicious death of Mary’s husband Darnley, the failed Babington plot to rescue Mary).

Newbury has added non-textual pantomimes as references to the happier childhoods of Mary and Elizabeth. Young supernumerary girls portray the young Elizabeth (Kendall Green and Hypatia Aldrich) and the young Mary Stuart (Eliana Herrick and Lucy Durham).

The Opera’s Background

The German dramatist Friedrich Schiller, whose revolutionary ideas clashed with the conservative sovereign small German principality to which he was born, strongly influenced the Romantic movement. Schiller’s play Marie Stuart was a sympathetic defense of an individual (Mary) whose rights to self-determination were crushed by the oppressive mechanisms of state power (represented in the opera by Elizabeth I and, most specifically, by her adviser Lord Cecil).

Donizetti, who himself pushed the boundaries of conventional Italian opera, was attracted to the play’s most famous scene, in which a furious Mary, tired of supplicating herself to the Queen who was holding her prisoner, refers to Elizabeth as Henry VIII’s illegitimate daughter (in the eyes of the Catholic church). Donizetti organized the opera around the confrontation of the two queens and the fatal consequences of Mary calling Elizabeth a vil bastarda.

In fact, although the opera is now considered one of Donizetti’s most effective, presaging later developments in Italian opera [see my essay Gaetano Donizetti: European Romanticism and The Pathway to Verdi], the subject matter was considered too dangerous by the forces attempting to discourage revolutionary tendencies in Europe.  It would take over a century and a half for the opera to become establish itself in the performance repertory. Its first performance in Seattle did not occur until the company’s 60th season.


I recommend the Seattle Opera production of Donizetti’s “Mary Stuart” enthusiastically, both for the veteran opera goer and the person new to opera.

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