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What's playing / 'Maria Stuarda'

Published 1:20 pm, Sunday, January 27, 2013
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Joyce DiDonato is a phenomenal singer. A mezzo-soprano with a beautiful sound from top to bottom and a flawless technique. Her ability to manage the demands of the bel canto music of Gaetano Donizetti in the title role of "Maria Stuarda" (Mary, Queen of Scots) reminded me of the glorious days of Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne in works like Bellini's "Norma." In a role that must be one of the most exhausting ever conceived, she dominated the entire piece. She is also an excellent actress.

"Maria Stuarda" was performed on Saturday, Jan. 19, on the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD. Another performance is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 26, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

The production of this opera, one of Donizetti's "Three Queens," at the Met this season is costumed sumptuously, but is played out on a set designed to resemble Shakespeare's Globe Theatre with minimal furniture and props. Having the excellent chorus all in white in the first scene with only a few costumed acrobats in red was just the beginning of the effective work of John MacFarlane, and his distortion of the great seal of England, which featured a roaring lion and a raging dragon, was stunning. Each set was stark, perhaps even cold, but it worked. Donizetti's plot played somewhat fast-and-loose with actual history, with an implied love connection between Mary and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who was the great love of Queen Elizabeth I, but it made for one great opera.

Queen Elizabeth I was given a wonderful, strong, even swaggering interpretation, with some equally fine singing, by soprano Elza van den Heever, who was willing to appear quite unglamorous at one point. The emotional life she gave to the queen was deeply moving. She was at first torn by her feelings for Mary, who was a cousin, but a Catholic and with a claim on her own throne, as well as her jealousy over Leicester's seemingly fickle behavior. Instead of pleading for Elizabeth's forgiveness and mercy, as Leicester wants her to, Mary blows up in some declamatory music calling Elizabeth, the daughter of a harlot and a "vil bastarda!" (There were gasps all over the audience.) The inevitable end comes for Mary, in the last scenes, when she confesses her sins to the sympathetic and mellifluous British bass, George Talbot, sung by Matthew Ross, which offered her fine legato singing and total concentration. This carried over into the finale, her death scene, with the chorus portraying those who loved her, which offered cameo moments for some of the choristers that might have been missed in the house but were quite wonderful in HD closeup. DiDonato's singing in this scene was deeply touching, and in some places, when she was bidding goodbye to the world, has exactly the right ethereal quality.

Leicester was more than just well sung by the lovely lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani. He, too, is torn, for different reasons, between loving both Elizabeth and Mary. William Cecil, the queen's wise if harsh adviser, and Mary's implacable enemy, was baritone Joshua Hopkins, another excellent singer. A supporting soprano role of Hannah, Mary's deeply loyal companion, was very well done, but the singer's name was not listed in the program, an unfortunate omission. The ensemble singing throughout was marvelous. The sympathetic conductor was Maurizio Benini, who knows this style very well indeed.

This was an outstanding performance with great singing and acting by everyone, but at the end of the day, it belonged to Joyce DiDonato.

Arden Anderson-Broecking, professional singer and musician, is a music critic and feature writer living in Fairfield County.