Maria Stuarda at the Met

Dramatically speaking, Donizetti’s opera is little more than a
conventional love triangle topped with an execution

The Metropolitan Opera invested all its considerable resources in a new
production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Tudor-Stuart drama, Maria Stuarda:
Elizabethan costumes that must have cost the entire budget of a regional opera
company; a production and sets faithful to the period; conductor Maurizio
Benini, who can make this music sound more inventive than it is; and a leading
mezzo, Joyce DiDonato, in the vehicle role of the doomed Mary Queen of

Everything, that is, except an opera worth mounting.

The libretto for Maria, according to the New Grove, is by Giuseppe Bardari.
He wrote it at age 17, and it is the only libretto he ever wrote, fortunately.
He went on to a career in the law and police work, including the position of
Prefect of Police in Naples.

Bardari’s solution to filling an evening’s entertainment is two acts,
each pointing to a single emotional peak. In the first scene of Act One, the
foolish tenor Robert, Earl of Leicester, manipulates a young Queen Elizabeth
into meeting with her rival Mary, imprisoned for her treasonous activities at
Fotheringhay Castle. Leicester is aware he is loved by both women. His
championing of the imprisoned Mary’s cause is sure to annoy Elizabeth, which
it does.

This leads to the confrontation in the second scene of Act One between the
two women, during which Mary refers to Elizabeth as the bastard child of Anne
Boleyn and Henry VIII. While this meeting is historical fiction, it makes for
some dramatic fireworks. Mary’s intemperate words seal her fate.

As confrontation scenes go, this one manages to raise the temperature on
stage and inspires Donizetti beyond his usual note spinning, but it is a mere
spat compared to some of the real confrontation scenes in opera: King Phillip
and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos, Ortrud and Elsa in
Lohengrin; Renato and Amelia in A Masked Ball, for starters.
That present-day music critics have made so much of this short royal catfight
signals how barren this opera is of real dramatic and musical heat.

The second climax comes in the second scene of Act Two, when Mary receives
news she is to be executed. She is comforted by her sympathetic jailer Talbot
(the role for a bass), and then sings her way to the scaffold. While overlong
and milked for every ounce of pity, the scene contains a lovely chorus of
Mary’s supporters and provides DiDonato with the chance to sing her heart out
before she loses her head.

The Met staged the run-up to the beheading dramatically. Mary shed her outer
grey-black gown to reveal a blood-red simple shift. Under her wig was a head of
grey hair. DiDonato mastered a Parkinson’s-like tremor in her right hand and
face that made Mary even more pitiable. She turned and walked up a steep
staircase to face an executioner the size of an NFL linebacker, holding a huge
axe. Curtain.

And that’s it. The opera is little more than a conventional love triangle
with a royal overlay and an execution. The tenor Leicester dithers between
women and is a most unsympathetic wimp. Elizabeth is played as a lumbering,
unlovely, troubled monarch with a great wardrobe. All the sympathy goes to
Mary, which makes sense when one considers that Donizetti wrote the piece as a
vehicle for a favorite singer, Giuseppina Ronzi De Begnis (according to the New
Grove). She never got to sing it because censors objected to the plot.

That’s a problem with “vehicle” operas: they may show off an artist,
as this one showcases DiDonato, but there is little else for the audience.
Verdi might have made something of this story, as he did with another opera
about a tenor in love with a queen: Don Carlos. He would have included
some of the back-story of the contending historical forces between Tudors and
Stuarts. He would have made more of the Anglican and Catholic split. Elizabeth
would have been brought to life as a worthy foil to Mary. The confrontation
would have been more complex, nuanced, and hair-raising, as is the face-off in
Don Carlos between church and state.

But Verdi was a genius, and Donizetti was a craftsman, better at comic opera
than serious, which is why this piece has justly moldered in the archives.

DiDonato was up to the challenge. Her face, presented in relentless HD
close-ups, had the glow of a martyr. She floated and held some beautiful high
notes in the final scene. Her voice was up to all the coloratura challenges.

As Leicester, Matthew Polenzani proved once again why the Met is giving him
such prominent parts. He has a lovely head voice, which he used often in some
quiet singing. He has some juice when necessary, although in an HD transmission
one cannot judge carrying power in the opera house itself. He did not project
the gravitas of an Earl loved by two queens, but that is probably the
librettist’s fault.

The young South African Elza van den Heever made her house debut as
Elizabeth, and it gives much promise for the future. She is a big woman, made
even bigger by the enormous gowns she must wear designed by John Macfarlane,
who also designed the period sets. Her voice is bright, accurate, a bit steely,
with heft. The Met should find other roles for her. She may have a comic

Bass Matthew Rose was a burly and sympathetic Talbot, Mary’s jailer and
confessor. Baritone Joshua Hopkins exhibited a clear and ringing tone as Lord
Cecil, who convinces Elizabeth to sign Mary’s death warrant.

All praise to director David McVicar for presenting this piece straight,
with no gimmicks. Much of the action was played out in two realistic settings:
Whitehall for Elizabeth’s scenes, and the forest outside Fotheringhay, for
Mary’s. That the opera doesn’t make much of an impression is not his

Having now presented two of Donizetti’s royal operas (Anna Bolena
being the first), the Met and its publicity machine will soon beat the drums
for the third: Roberto Devereux. The Met has done its best to frame
them as a trilogy worthy of serious critical consideration. Having now seen the
first two, and with high hopes, I think I will pass on the third.


This review first appeared at CNY
CafÈ Momus
. It is republished with the permission of the

image_description=Joyce DiDonato as the title character of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda.”
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Maria Stuarda
product_by=A review by David Rubin
product_id=Above: Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda [Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]