As the plane skids on patches of ice along the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport runway, my eye turns to the window to witness the exotic landscape of white snow that awaits me once outside the plane. Yet, a Southern boy must suffer to get his fix of Donizetti, and as the weight of carry-on bags crush my left shoulder during my search for the bus terminal, my mind races towards the events that await me as Minnesota Opera premieres Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda this Saturday.
Known for its focus on bel canto repertoire, MN Opera has become a destination for operagoers searching fully staged performances of these inexplicably ignored masterpieces. A glance at the company’s history in the past two decades shows such rarities as staged productions of Bellini’s I Capulette ed I Montecchi, Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, Semiramide and Armida, Mercadante’s Orazi e Curiazi, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Padilla. Continuing this trend, the company premiered Donizetti’s so called “Tudor Trilogy” with Roberto Devereux in 2010, with a cast spearheaded by soprano Brenda Harris and tenor Bruno Ribeiro. Those present at that occasion (hand raised) will remember the impression that these artists made upon the audience. For the second installment of the trilogy, Maria Stuarda, Brenda Harris returns to the stage to reprise her role as Queen Elisabeth, with Judith Howarth taking on the role of the ill-fated Maria. If last night’s dress rehearsal is indicative of the performance that will be unveiled this Saturday, I’d venture to say that this is a production not to be missed.
The opera is based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, author of several plays that became essential subjects for some of the great opera composers of the period (Rossini and Verdi figure prominently among them), and it deals primarily with the friction between Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. The libretto, created by Giuseppe Bardari, improves upon history by creating situations that will hold the attention of the audience, such as an imagined love affair between Dudley and Mary Stuart, and that the two queens actually met together to have it out.
It is this confrontation that provides the climax of the opera, culminating with a massive outburst from Mary Stuart that will later cost her head:
“Figlia impure di Bolena,
parli tu di disonore?
Meretrice, indegna, oscena,
In te cada il mio rossore.
Profanato e il soglio inglese
Vil bastarda, dal tuo pie!”
(Impure daughter of Boleyn,
do you speak of dishonor?
Obscene and unworthy whore,
May my blush fall on you.
Profaned is the English throne
Vile bastard, by your foot!)
This very snap has become a cause celebre in the annals of operatic history. In 1834, when the first production of the opera was being rehearsed in Naples, the soprano cast as Mary (Giuseppina Ronzi-de Begnis) declaimed her insult in too convincing a manner for the Elizabeth (Anna del Sere), leading to a now famous physical altercation onstage which involved hair pulling, punching, and some ever swear to biting. Donizetti, who was overseeing the rehearsal, writes that at one point: “Ronzi spoke against me, believing me out of earshot. She said ‘Donizetti protects that whore of a del Sere.’ And, to her surprise, I answered; ‘I do not protect any of you, but those two queens were whores, and you two are whores.'” Giants! It is not clear whether this fight, or the very outburst in the libretto contributed to the opera not being performed. The King of Naples shut the show down before its premiere, and being an absolute monarch never felt the need to reveal his reasons for pulling the plug. The subject was indeed quite racy for the time, and the Naples censors were never keen on the idea of members of royal blood being decapitated onstage. Poor Donizetti gave it a second go the following year and staged the opera at La Scala, starring the celebrated Maria Malibran. This time around, he toned down the text to avoid a repeat of the Naples fiasco, and the infamous “vil bastarda” became “vile donna” (vile woman). This obvious downgrade did not please the feisty Malibran, who insisted on delivering the original line during the rehearsals and subsequently on the opening night performance. Sadly, La Malibran was quite ill during the premiere (described as utterly voiceless by some critics) and the opera did not receive a good reception (after all, you do need to sing Donizetti’s sublime music once you tell your snap). The Austrian governor of Lombardy, to avoid problems with the censors, prohibited the opera after the first run of performances, and the work fell into oblivion until 1958 with a revival in Bergamo. Ever since, the opera has attracted the attention of prima donnas such as Montserrat Caballe, Joan Sutherland, Shirley Verrett, Eileen Farrell, Leyla Gencer and Beverly Sills, and has slowly regained its rightful place in the international repertoire.
The performances begin on Saturday 1/29, and run until Sunday 2/6. (More on the cast and the dates can be found at: http://www.mnopera.org)