Profanato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè! And thus Mary Stuart condemns herself to be beheaded, in what is arguably the best scene in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. It certainly brings the house down, and the applause Saturday evening at the Met indeed lasted longer than usual.
It was thrilling to be back at the Met after a rather long winter break. The vision of Lincoln Center ablaze in the dark cold evening is enough to warm you up.
And then you enter the grandiose foyer and make your way under the Swarovsky chandeliers, up the stairs (quite a climb!) to the Dress Circle, where seats are affordable and excellent. I have yet to muster up the courage to buy an orchestra seat, but it isn’t really necessary.
I waited impatiently for the painted curtain to go up, as it is absolutely hideous. A bloody red depiction of the English lion fighting a griffin (would that be from Mary Stuart’s coat of arms?) with a tongue that looks like a snake, in an exercise of over-stated symbolism which was completely unnecessary. Luckily, it did rise after the short, musically quite frivolous overture, and everything was immediately forgotten and forgiven.
The first act set was simply breathtaking, lavish white structures on a lush red backdrop, all costumes in the same colors and majestically simple. It seemed like a hard act to follow, but the subsequent sets were just as beautiful, the Palace of Whitehall and the outdoor scene in the park at Fotheringhay Castle in the first act, and then the final execution scene in the second act, again monochromatic in dark grays and black, until Mary Stuart sheds her outer dress to reveal a bright red “robe de bure” to be executed in. Sets and costumes are a visual triumph, no doubt.
The production is thus a very fitting backdrop for the magnificent singers. Elza van den Heever is a polished, intelligent and powerful soprano, extremely well suited to her role as Queen Elizabeth I, but I was a little puzzled at the very masculine demeanor probably imposed on her (or maybe chosen by her) to stress her position in the story, which I found a little overdone. Just a detail which did not impair the quality of her singing and acting. A very good performance indeed, as was that of mezzo Joyce DiDonato, a sensitive, strong-willed and poignant Mary Stuart with a gorgeous voice, whose last aria was absolutely riveting.
The men impressed me much less. Not that the singers were not up to par, but I think that the roles are musically and dramatically much less interesting than the feminine parts which definitely tower above the male ones. The opera is about Elizabeth and Mary and the libretto and the music make that absolutely clear. Leicester is just an additional pretext for their irreconcilable rivalry the core of which is , of course, the throne. So I must confess that I did not pay much attention to the male figures and if I wasn’t overly impressed by their singing, I wasn’t particularly disappointed either.
And now for the totally impudent and shameless part of these comments. Apart from the magnificent feminine arias and duets, I find Donizetti’s score rather trivial. It does not stand up to Lucia, or L’Elisir, or Don Pasquale, for instance.The overture is, as I mentioned before, quite frivolous and not at all in tune with the somber script. Maurizio Benini and the Met Orchestra did as good a job as they could, but I kept wishing that the music were a little more meaty. Of course, nobody, not even Mozart, produced only masterpieces. So Donizetti wrote great music, and some less so. I think Maria Stuarda falls into the latter category, with the exception, again, of some superlative moments, for which one should definitely go to the Met.