Maria Stuarda, WNO

Rudolf Frey at the helm, directing
within designer Madeleine Boyd’s overall concept, with conductor Graeme
Jenkins and a strong cast including Adina Nitescu as Elisabetta, Alastair Miles
as Talbot, Gary Griffiths as Cecil, Bruce Sledge as Leicester, Judith Howarth
as Maria Stuarda and Quite d Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as Anna. We saw the
performance on 5 October 2013 at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. Whilst
all concerned clearly worked hard, the performance failed to achieve the level
of dramatic intensity and focus that I had been hoping for.

Donizetti’s opera failed during his lifetime, but it’s performance
history has been transformed in the 20th century with striking interpretations
by singers as diverse as Janet Baker, Joan Sutherland, Ann Murray and Sarah
Connolly. The role of Maria Stuarda was sung, in the first Milan performances
in 1835, by Maria Maliban which has led people to cast the role as
mezzo-soprano though Donizetti probably intended both Maria and Elisabetta to
be sung by sopranos. WNO followed this with their casting of both roles as
sopranos, with Howarth and Nitescu.

Frey is a young Austrian director who has recently staged Verdi’s
Nabucco in Salzburg. It was never going to be easy for him to produce
Maria Stuarda within a concept conceived to fit Alessandro Talevi’s
Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux. Boyd’s black set and
stylish black costumes were continued over from Anna Bolena and Boyd
had created some extremely striking and stylish outfits for Nitescu as
Elisabetta. New to Maria Stuarda were two huge boxes, two halves of a
giant cube sitting on the revolve. One was white, with glass walls, Maria
Stuarda’s prison and the other was a dark wood closet used by Elisabetta.

Quite firmly we were presented with a dichotomy, the dark Elisabetta
paralleled with the light Maria. This found its way into many aspects of the
staging, in act one scene two, when Maria was reveling in her freedom, not only
did we hear the horns but was saw them and saw Elisabetta being dressed for the
hunt as the two boxes had a transparent membrane between them. Later Frey used
this to striking effect when Elisabetta was trying to decide whether to sign
Maria’s death warrant, we saw Maria behind her mirroring her actions. And
when the warrant was signed, Elisabetta drew a line in red across the membrane
which effectively cut of Maria’s head. But too frequently, I felt that rather
concentrating on dramatic atmosphere, Frey was signalling to us exactly what to

During the prelude we saw the courtiers pressing against Maria’s box,
watching her as she gestured defiance. But the use of these boxes severely
restricted the playing area, so that the court scene at the opening of act one
was played on the narrow stage in front of the boxes with the courtiers arrayed
in serried ranks on benches. Frey didn’t seem interested in striking
effective stage pictures, but seemed content to assemble people in ranks.
Ensembles saw the singers lined up at the front of the stage. And rather too
often he used the device of having a single singer move whilst the rest of the
stage froze. I’m afraid that by the end of act one, I was beginning to wonder
whether Rudolf Frey actually liked bel canto opera, as too often his production
worked against the grain of Donizetti’s drama, rather than with it. All this
would not have mattered, if he had generated performances of focussed intensity
from his principals, but unfortunately despite some extremely fine singing and
a great deal of energy, the production did not coalesce into an effective

The role of Elisabetta is firmly the seconda donna, she doesn’t
really get much stage time but what she does get is terrific and the part is
something of a gift for a singing actress. Nitolescu looked and acted the part,
in dramatic terms she made a strong Elisabetta. But she had a tendency to
swallow her words so that it was not clear what she was singing, and her tone
was frankly rather squally. When singing quietly, she was capable of some fine
grade singing, but when she pushed the voice the tone rather curdled.
Unfortunately this crept into her whole performance, so that her Elisabettta
did rather have an element of caricature about her.

Judith Howarth is a singer who has not received the attention which she
deserves in the UK and I was pleased to hear her in the title role. She was
dressed by Boyd in a similar style to all the other women, full skirts, leather
bodice but in Howarth’s case the fabric was red tartan and the bodice brown
leather, with a white blouse. The result rather gave her the look of a comedy
bar-maid. And throughout the opera, it was a little unclear quite who this
person was, I am not sure that Frey had a strong idea here. Instead of a noble
queen suffering unjustly we got a character who seemed to be channelling Lucy
Ewing (aka the poison dwarf) from Dallas. During her lovely entrance aria,
which Howarth sang very finely, she and her lady in waiting lit up cigarettes
and lounged against the walls of the box. Then in the next scene with
Sledge’s Leicester, Howarth cavorted about like a comedy vamp.

This was frustrating because, apart from a couple of slightly unfocused top
notes and an unfortunate E in alt, Howarth’s performance was highly musical
and very stylish. All my doubts coalesced in the staging of the confrontation
between the two queens at the end of act one. All concerned were encouraged to
over act, with Nitescu spitting venom from the start, Howarth encouraged to be
more virago than noble victim, and Gary Griffiths’ Cecil mincing about like
poison-incarnate. The result looked over done and frankly, verged into comedy,
as if Frey did not quite trust his material. But then Howarth sang the infamous
Vile bastard phrase with such concentrated intensity and venom that
made you realise there was the making of a strong performance underneath.

In act two, Nitescu’s opening scene with Griffiths and Sledge, did
generate quite a frisson of drama and Frey’s coup of having Nitescu cut off
Howarth’s head with the red line was certainly very striking. But from the
second scene, the action concentrated on Howarth and we were able to appreciate
the beautiful way with Donizetti’s music and the nice feeling for structure
she showed as the performance built through Maria’s sequence of arias. The
prayer at the opening of the final scene was profoundly lovely, but the aria in
which Maria forgives Elisabetta was nearly torpedoed by having Howarth strip
off her dark coat to reveal a brown leather jerkin, closely moulded to her body
with a pair of hugely realistic breasts. I am still unclear of the iconography
here, but Howarth performed with devastating aplomb and if you had listened
with your eyes closed you would never have heard any disturbance in the vocal

Bruce Sledge gave ardent support as Leicester, revealing a robust tenor
voice which was fully adept at Donizetti’s vocal lines. We heard Sledge in
Santa Fe (in Rossini’s Maometto secondo) and he impressed then and
impressed again. He sang with generous tone and a robust style, bringing great
energy to the vocal line. Dramatically he was perhaps a little understated, but
in the concept of the rather over-done moments in the production this was very

Gary Griffiths sang Cecil very well, but his performance seemed to be
marooned in a bizarre concept of the character which involved much pouting and
over-acting from Griffiths. I am not quite sure what Frey’s intentions were,
be as realised here they rather disturbed the drama and distracted from what
was a very fine musical performance.

Alastair Miles, having contributed an evil Enrico in Anna Bolena,
was a noble and notable Talbot, even managing to get out a priest’s stole
with aplomb. His big scene with Howarth in act two had its over-done moments,
but over all the two artists generated a fine sense of the release which
brought Maria to a new plane.

Graeme Jenkins conducted confidently and there were some nice moments. He
had a tendency sometimes to let the music plod a bit, so that we had the odd
rum-ti-tum moment which is always a danger in Donizetti. The orchestra did not
seem to generate the same consistent intensity that we had heard the previous

This was a rather frustrating performance, in which the director’s
konzept did not seem to quite match Donizetti’s music and which led
to some rather unfocused performances. Whilst there were some fine moments,
overall the performance lacked dramatic intensity. Thanks to Howarth’s
extremely moving account of the title role, the final scenes had a nobility to
them for which I was thankful.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Elisabetta: Adina Nitescu, Talbot: Alastair Miles, Cecil: Gary
Griffiths, Leicester: Bruce Sledge, Anna: Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Maria Stuarda:
Judith Howarth. Director: Rudolf Frey, Designer: Madelein Boyd, Lighting:
Matthew Haskins. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 5 October

image_description=Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart [Photo by Robert Workman]
product_title=Maria Stuarda, WNO
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart [Photo by Robert Workman]