Minnesota Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda opened last Saturday, January 29 at the Ordway theatre to an enthusiastic, near sold out house. Patrons who attended last year’s first installment of the so-called “Tudor Trilogy,” Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, were instantly brought back to director Kevin Newbury’s vision of the English court.
The design motifs, created by set designer Neil Patel, remained consistent: The set is mainly composed of an ornate ceiling, which houses descending walls and columns which create different environments and facilitate quick scene changes. Also, the principles and members of the chorus are once again meticulously and beautifully costumed by Jessica Jahn, Newbury creates, through the work of his lighting designer D.M. Woods, generous amounts of dramatic tension by his use of light and shadow, and the opening chorus was particularly striking for this. Frozen in darkness and barely lit from stage right, shadows cast against the bare background, and foretold the tragic tale that was to come. A sharp use of the color red also commented on the situations onstage, notably with events that would directly affect the fate of Maria Stuarda. These details may sound like the hallmark of what I normally dismiss as modern Regietheater nonsense, but Newbury seldom imposed himself neither unto Donizetti’s libretto nor the action onstage with one exception. I found the smooth transition between the second and third scene in act two to be rather disorienting, and would have been grateful for a few minutes of silent darkness to both digest what had taken place and prepare myself for what was to come. Alas I was one of many in the theater, and I suppose one cannot please everyone. When the director turned to his principles, Newbury allowed his singers to, for the most part, exert their personal charisma to their portrayals (or at least this was the impression I gathered: Like a good plastic surgeon, one does not see his work). This approach yielded brilliant results with seasoned talents such as Judith Howarth and Brenda Harris, while it is my opinion that the young tenor Bruce Sledge would have benefited from further council on the topic of stage deportment.
The musical direction of this production was led by conductor Anne Manson, whom I found wanting on many levels. Bel Canto is deceptively simple music, and making it sound alive can prove to be particular tricky business. Like a master chef will tell you, the soul of a peasant dish is the most difficult thing to capture, and there’s a pulse in bel canto that cannot be measured by metronome alone. Yet, many times during the faster conclusions of several scenes, the conductor’s baton seemed intent on creating a deliberate effect through speed. Sometimes when galloping at neck breaking speed, necks break. Ultimately, this unwillingness to breathe with the lungs of some of the singers marred several sections of the score, and in more than one occasion the ear was aware of a hapless artist brought to exhaustion in his/her efforts to maintain the effect dictated in the pit. The final pages of the score shockingly suffered from this treatment, and one can only hope that the arm tires as the performances progress, because the MN Opera company has assembled a worthy cast, and they deserve to be heard in less hectic circumstances.
Issues in the pit aside, we remember the singers, and despite what you may have heard in recent years, they are to be the main reason for staging these works. The Maria Stuarda of Judith Howarth called into question the casting of her type of instrument to a role that Donizetti entrusted to Giuseppina Ronzi-de Begnis and Maria Malibran. A beautiful woman capable of striking a regal figure despite her petite stature, Ms Howarth unleashed a fine lyric soprano voice with a good trill, limpid in quality and happiest in the highest reaches of her range. In fact, it was in interpolated passages, such as a stunning high F that concluded her act one cabaletta “Nella pace del mesto riposo,” where her tone was most convincing and authoritative, thus presented herself as a dangerous contender to the Enlish throne. There was, however, something unyielding and inflexible in the way she shaped the arc of her first act aria, “Oh nube! Che lieve,” robbing the melody of warmth. A more troubling detail became apparent when the score made demands in the middle and lower tones, where the unsteady and less sonorous quality of her instrument inspired her to press upon it, at times badly undermining pitch. The result proved two fold: When the role required mesmerizing coloratura passages, the voice proved ideal, but when a greater variety of color and volume in the middle and lower notes were called for (such as during the confrontation with Ms. Harris which closes the act,) the effect was found wanting. One was grateful that her glorious insult to Queen Elisabetta, the infamous “Figlia impura di Bolena” was hurled towards Ms. Harris with hair-raising interpolations in the upper register, leaving little question that Maria had undone herself at the curtain’s fall.
The limitations in the lower registers were at their most apparent during her first scene in act three, where the bright and lyric voice exerted a great effort negotiating the musical shifts in the aria “Quando la luce rosea.” The grand finale of the opera found Ms. Howarth in greater form, particularly in the spectacular Prayer scene that sets the emotional atmosphere in the final act. Here, she sustained Donizetti’s tricky ascend from a pianissimo G to a crescendo B flat, in a single breath, for seven measures. Here, she became a vehicle for Donizetti’s genius in capturing the queen’s initial wistful hope, only to desperately protest against her impending fate.
(For a comparison of several singers giving this trick a go, sample this. If you vote for Caballe, Sutherland and Devia, you can add me on facebook!)
In the concluding phrases of the finale, “De un cor che muore, reca il perdono!” she intelligently lingered in her upper register to achieve a beautiful and haunting effect. Overall, despite some limitations in the instrument when applied to this very special role, Ms. Howarth made a winning impression and proved herself a valid interpreter of the part.
In the role of Stuarda’s royal foe, soprano Brenda Harris reprised her role as Queen Elisabetta. Her regal entrance in act one brought back memories of her appearances in the same character in last year’s Roberto Devereux, and immediately established continuity with the earlier production. If the eye was convinced that the Queen of England had arrived onstage, the ear was soon to follow suit as Ms. Harris embarked in her aria di sortita “Ah! Quando all’ara scorgemi.” As Minnesota audiences have come to know, here is a voice equalized in all its registers and ample in sonority. What is most important to my ears is Ms. Harris’ ability to find the elusive pulse present in the bel canto score, even when it is not provided, so the voice floated over the orchestra, lingered tastefully along the melodic line and shaped Donizetti’s cantinela in a memorable way. When the requirements shift to florid music, such as in the cabaletta “Ah! Dal cielo discenda un raggio,” Ms. Harris was capable of the most dazzling, full-voiced coloratura, accurate in pitch, clean in its attack, and exemplary in rapidity.
And wait, there is video proof…
In the ensuing ensembles with Leicester, and later with Maria Stuarda, her declamation consistently dominated the musical panorama, either when exerting full voiced torpedoes or unexaggerated chest tones. More importantly, the voice had “face,” changing color and inflection when the musical and emotional situation required it to do so.
Tenor Bruce Sledge provided a beautifully poised tenore di grazia voice to the specialty role of Leicester. Replacing the originally announced Eric Cutler, Mr. Sledge proved himself aptly cast for the part, with a sound that was Italianate, appropriately audible throughout his range, and capable of contributing to the musical fabric during concerted numbers. While his physical presence did not further his dramatic cause (a discussion of his acting abilities would not go beyond the borders of these parentheses) his voice was more than sufficiently attractive to hold the interest of the audience all on its own. Things worked less happily for Mr. Sledge when trying to keep up with the rapid tempi that propelled the action from the pit, particularly in the strettas that close each major scene in act one. Phrasings were hardly realized, and one particular moment injured me deeply. In the opening of the larghetto section in his trio with Elisabetta and Cecil in act two, the tenor embarked in the unaccompanied “Ah, per pieta sospendi.” Here, the ear desired him to hang unto the note, modulate the tone to its full promise, and then set the musical pulse to be taken up by the conductor and set the thing alive. Instead, an unrelenting baton came down to set the tempo, and while music was made, the magic was never fully realized. Sad kittens. Sad kittens.
The supporting roles in this production were also wonderfully cast. Bass-baritone Jonathan Kimple was seen last year as Raleigh in Roberto Devereux. This time around, he returned in the role of Stuarda’s confidant and supporter, Talbot. Mr. Kimple filled his duet with Leicester and Maria Stuarda with an even, attractive timbre, and the only thing holding him back from more mature assignments may be a shyness to round off his phrasing (the ear hears that he has it, but does he?). The subject of Mr Kimple’s extraordinary good looks will not be discussed here. This is a classy joint. Another artist making a comeback from last year’s Roberto Devereux presentations is baritone Michael Nyby, cast in the substantial part of Lord Cecil, Elisabetta’s councilor and chief player in encouraging the queen to dispose of Maria Stuarda. In contrast to Mr. Kimple, Mr. Nyby’s singing was marred at times by a covered tone, which he nevertheless phrased with great taste. Maybe those two should talk. Mezzo-soprano Victoria Vargas, in the role of Maria’s nurse Anna, took advantage of her limited role and produced an even, dark voice that contrasted with Ms. Howarth’s brighter instrument. One expects to hear more of her in the near future.
Presentations of Maria Stuarda continue from February 1 through February 6. For more information, visit http://www.mnopera.org/.