The opera plays with history – again

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Elza van den Heever plays Elisabetta in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda.”

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

At the core of “Maria Stuarda” lies a power struggle. The Protestant Queen of England contends with a Catholic monarch, the Queen of Scotland, who aspires to the British throne. What better conflict than two strong women vying for political power in an age laced with religious hatred?

Well, how about a love triangle?

Enter Gaetano Donizetti and his young librettist, Giuseppe Bardari. In the 1830s, out of nowhere, the experienced composer chose a law student, only 17, to write the book for a big historical opera to follow Donizetti’s first Tudor drama – “Anna Bolena.”

The result can be seen Saturday in the splendid MET: Live in HD transmission of “Maria Stuarda” starring Joyce DiDonato in the title role, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and the towering mezzo Elza van den Heever as Queen Elizabeth I.

We have to forgive Donizetti for playing fast with history. First, the rival queens never met face to face, but their dramatic confrontation is the red meat of Act I. Nor was there a love triangle involving Sir Robert Dudley. For both inventions, blame the famous German playwright Friedrich Schiller. His 1800 play about the martyrdom of the Scottish queen fabricated a face-to-face showdown between the monarchs and sizzling passion to juice up the basic story. Elizabeth truly found Dudley, the Earl of Leister, irresistible, but he never met Mary.

It’s called artistic license, and opera drowns in such excess.

The bitter rivalry between the two queens took place on paper and by royal edict, ending in the order to execute Mary in 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle, central England. That part is history, and the opera ends as Mary ascends a staircase to her death.

The new Met production is a spectacle unto itself.

Set and costume designer John Macfarlane has retained a period look in dress, but he has employed extremes of color and imagination to the look of the piece. Signature colors are black, white, red and gray. Maria Stuarda wears plain gray wool until her demise, when she wears the red of martyrdom.

Queen Elizabeth’s red hunting outfit almost trumps her gigantic silver court gown overlaid with lace, sequins and structural wings that could buttress St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In short, there’s red and the blood red of opera; there’s gray and opera gray.

The confrontation scene has also had its own history of contentiousness. When the two queens meet, they exchange insults. In 1834, at the Naples premiere, Elizabeth called Mary treacherous. Mary responded with “you vile bastard.” The censors stepped in and the production closed.

The subject of regicide was already explosive, and some argue that rough language was only a pretext for the ban.

Adjustments, as they say, were made, and “Maria Stuarda” reopened at the end of 1835 in Milan. More trouble.

Objections to the content and text continued, fueled by a cat fight between the two female singers on and off stage. Once again the opera was closed and banned. Ancient Protestant-Catholic rivalries had not diminished nor the issue of executing royalty – nor the bitter sting of divas in waiting.

The rest, as they say, is opera history, and miraculously, the new Met production follows the original 1834 version. I write miraculous, because the composer’s 1834 autograph score had been thought lost. But it was discovered in 1989, so the Met has restored the original two-act version. It contains Maria Stuarda’s most biting invectives – sung in Italian with English subtitles.

jreynolds@durangoherald.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

Most Read in Arts

Newsarrow

Sportsarrow

Arts & Entertainmentarrow

Opinionarrow

Columnistsarrow

Classifiedsarrow

Call Us

View full site


© The Durango Herald