mon 15/07/2024

Maria Stuarda, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Maria Stuarda, Welsh National Opera

Maria Stuarda, Welsh National Opera

Second episode in WNO's Donizetti Tudor cycle has musical style but is coarsely directed

Judith Howarth and Adina Nitescu: trollop and fishwifeRobert Workman

Last week Anne Boleyn, this week Mary Queen of Scots. Donizetti’s trawl through the Tudor monarchs and their victims was more a recurrent obsession than a systematic exploration. WNO, on the other hand, seem to be implying some Ring-like continuity.

Maria Stuarda has a different director in Rudolf Frey, but the same designer, Madeleine Boyd; and court fashion hasn’t changed in the half-century or so since Anne Boleyn went to the block – the same unflattering black skirts and suitings, the same gloomy box interiors. Only Mary defies the monochrome motif with a plaid skirt and knee-length boots that wouldn’t disgrace a Scottish chat-show hostess.

It contains one of the most arresting moments in Italian opera before Verdi

Despite the political context, Donizetti’s Henry VIII was driven mainly by his infatuations; and for Frey, much the same is true of the two queens in Maria Stuarda. His Elizabeth I, Adina Nitescu, is an eyelash-fluttering trollop in the happy position of being able to decapitate her rival for Leicester’s affections, while his Mary (Judith Howarth) is a Clydeside fishwife for whom extreme unction is an opportunity to take off her clothes and fondle her confessor. The sheer vulgarity of her eventual costume – not actually topless but hideously quasi-topless in tight leatherette – would beggar belief if it weren’t so in keeping with the general drift of the staging. Donizetti may not be Schiller, but his queens are something grander than mere name-calling floozies.

For sure, Maria Stuarda is a stronger (and four years later) piece than Anna Bolena, and its dramatic power deserves respect. Not only does it contain, in the superbly unhistorical encounter of the two queens in the park at Fotheringay, one of the most arresting moments in Italian opera before Verdi, but in general it’s sharper, more concentrated, and musically more varied than its predecessor. Donizetti is now using an enriched harmonic vocabulary to reflect the tensions of character and plot, and a crisper rhetoric to keep the drama moving. Even in an unsympathetic production it compels, where Anna Bolena sometimes languishes. But like all Donizetti, it takes some singing.

The cast here, as last week, is well up to the task, if not uniformly excellent. I like the range of colour and control in Nitescu’s voice, though she has her squally moments; and I like the character with which she handles Frey’s somewhat meretricious reading, though in the end it undermines the drama. Howarth, for me, is more problematic. She has moments of brilliance, and some spectacular top notes, but the voice isn’t uniformly secure, and the brilliancies sometimes seem to come from nowhere.

The portrait, too, is unattractive. In the first scene (in which she plays no musical part), Frey has her caged in a box with glass sides – an exhibit backed by a distorting mirror – from which she emerges in the second scene huffy rather than mettlesome. Leicester’s preference is unconvincing; Elizabeth is at least coquettish, and has the power.

Bruce Sledge (pictured above by Robert Workman) is all the same in fine, ringing voice, with that spinto quality that Robert McPherson’s otherwise well-sung Percy in Anna Bolena lacked. Alistair Miles is demoted from Henry VIII to Talbot, but survives the humiliation (including great loss of hair) impressively, and Gary Griffiths is a solid, just sufficiently sinister Cecil, whether hanging around upstage with his notebook or directing matters from the front. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones impresses in the small but omnipresent role of Mary’s companion, Anna.

Graeme Jenkins conducts, for the most part stylishly and efficiently, one or two moments of vagrant ensemble apart. Donizetti’s orchestration always repays attention, and here there are lovely moments of dark string sonority and pure, rich brass. The chorus is also vital, treated sometimes in character, sometimes like a Greek chorus, standing aside, commenting helplessly, superb in either role, as always on this stage.

Donizetti may not be Schiller, but his queens are something grander than mere name-calling floozies


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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I disagree with the verdict on Elisabetta and Maria Stuarda. Nitescu was all over the place when I saw it with some quite unpleasant tone qualities and very poor diction. Judith Howarth was exceptional. She reminded me at times of Dessay, very agile with great tone quality at the top and (unlike Nitescu) articulated scale and arpeggio passages well.

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