Time for the newest in the occasional mash-up between SNLC and the occasional opera series started by Demi Moaned, which I've since appropriation w/o initial permission, but with subsequent approval, more or less. Thus today's variation on the standard start-up question goes:
Anyone see the Metropolitan Opera HD-cast of Maria Stuarda today?
From just the title, even without knowing anything about opera. you can guess that the plot obviously deals with the conflict between Mary Stuart, a.k.a. Mary, Queen of Scots, and her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England, over control of the English throne. However, to my very limited understanding, the opera's story plays pretty quite fast and loose with historical details (what else is new?). But more than that, what makes this particular production notable are two things:
(a) This Met Opera production of Maria Stuarda is the first in the Met's history.
(b) One of the leading ladies "did a DeNiro" in getting ready for the role, in terms of physical appearance.
More below the flip.....
First, as usual here, just so that everyone is up to speed on the plot, the Met's synopsis of Maria Stuarda is here. Regarding historical accuracy, obviously no sensible person regards an opera, of all art forms, as reflecting precisely history exactly as it happened. The same can certainly be said of books, plays and movies, of course. One small detail about the fastness and looseness of the treatment of history is that the subtitles, and presumably the libretto by Giuseppe Bardari, is that Elizabeth and Mary are referred to as "sisters", whereas in real life, they were cousins. The opera is based on the 1800 play Maria Stuart, by Friedrich Schiller, which I'll admit that I haven't read, so I don't know if the "sisters" bit is from the play also.
However, the most important departure from historical accuracy, but without which departure the opera (or the play) wouldn't exist, is noted as follows from this NYT feature by Vivien Schweizer on mezzo-soprano Joyce Di Donato, who sings the title role. Emphasis is mine:
"History, however, is liberally blended with fantasy in the work, which has a libretto based on Mary Stuart, Friedrich Schiller's 1800 play about a fictitious meeting between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots."I remember reading somewhere that if Elizabeth and Mary truly had met, Elizabeth might not have had the stomach to sign the warrant for Mary's execution (yes, I just spoiled the ending, but you knew already how the story ended, didn't you?). However, this is opera, after all, and what composer and librettist could resist an operatic catfight between dueling diva? Anthony Tommasini noted as much in his his NYT review:
""Though history tells us that Mary and Elizabeth never met, Donizetti, following Schiller, gives them an intense scene of confrontation. How could he resist presenting his audience with dueling divas?"That confrontation occurs at the end of Part I, after Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (sung by tenor Matthew Polenzani), has arranged a meeting between the imprisoned Mary and QEI (sung by South African [though more Scottish-sounding in her spoken voice - but 3CM digresses, as usual] soprano Elza van den Heever) during a royal hunt near the castle where Mary is imprisoned. Leicester advises Mary to be contrite, but with both ladies extremely mistrustful and suspicious of each other, good luck with that. Needless to say, it doesn't work out that way, and the climax of the confrontation is when Mary hurls the insult "Vil bastarda!" (Vile bastard!) at Elizabeth.
Schweizer notes in her article that this phrase caused a bit of a ruckus at the time:
"In their meeting Mary accuses Elizabeth of being a 'vile bastard', which displeased the Italian censors. (She also accuses Elizabeth of being an 'obscene, unworthy whore.')"But in a bit of rebellion at the time (the very next sentence in the article:
"Maria Malibran, the mezzo soprano, rebelled against the censorship and reinserted 'vil bastarda' when she sang in the 1835 premiere at La Scala; the opera was then banned in Milan."That moment is clearly the dramatic highpoint of the story, and both Di Donato and van den Heever went at it and each other pretty well. In this operatic treatment, Mary gets pretty soft, sympathetic treatment, while Elizabeth comes off as much more of a bee-yotch type. One possible reason why comes from Tommasini in his review (emphasis mine):
"With a libretto by Giuseppe Bardari, based on a play by Schiller, the opera gives a very idealized portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was no slouch when it came to political machinations. A 19th-century Italian audience of Donizetti's day would have rooted for her as a Roman Catholic who stands up to a Protestant queen and becomes a martyr for her religion."I'm the village non-religious guy here, so all these historical spitball fights (and much worse) don't really take with me overall, but clearly in that different context of a past century, those religious conflicts would indeed have had strong resonance.
The director of this production is Sir David McVicar (yes, he's of Scottish descent), who also directed Anna Bolena, another in composer Gaetano Donizetti's "Three Queens" opera trilogy about Tudor monarchs and history. BTW, the 3rd opera is Roberto Devereux, and it's not hard to guess that it'll be on next season's roster, but we'll find out later this year for sure. Since this is the Met's first shot at Maria Stuarda, this certainly isn't a radically updated setting, but uses traditional-looking costumes and wigs, for example. However, the sets aren't always hyper-literal, the way a Franco Zeffirelli production would be, for example. Part 2, for example, which is set at the start in Mary's prison, features a mega-chalkboard-like backdrop with text written all over it. I didn't have time to gauge the text, but my guess is that it's taken from letters that Mary wrote in prison.
There was also a pre-recorded chat between Met Opera General Manager Peter Gelb, McVicar, and set & costume designer John Macfarlane (also Scottish - well, duh). One point that McVicar mentioned was that they tried to work in a bit more of the real history back into the production, particularly in Part 2, where 12 years or so have elapsed since Part 1. Elizabeth is made up to look much older, bald, and Mary is nervous clutching her rosary almost the whole of Part 2, looking paler. McVicar noted that this went somewhat against the text. But then given that as bass Matthew Rose (Talbot in the opera) noted, the whole opera is based on fiction anyway, a meeting between the two that never happened.
All of the singers did quite well, IMHO, the two female leads in particular, of course, since they obviously have to carry the show. Interestingly, to me at least, I thought that van den Heever did a stronger acting job, perhaps because her character is less sympathetic on the surface, compared to the relatively plaster-saintish Mary. (My Italian friend at the HD-cast thought otherwise.) Another reason for my evaluation might subliminally have been what she did to prepare for the role. As reported by the NYT's Daniel J. Wakin here:
"Elza van den Heever, 33, a promising South African soprano, has had her head shaved for the role of Queen Elizabeth I, the wig-bearing monarch whose portraits often depicted her with an unusually high forehead, in the Met's new production of Maria Stuarda by Donizetti.....But besides the artistic statement:
"She said she was moved to shave her head as a way of contributing to the professionalism she saw around her at the Met, taking note of the highly detailed and rich costumes.
'I did my part,' she said during an interview, while a makeup artist, Jimmy Cortés, worked on her face before a rehearsal last week. Ms. van den Heever met with a reporter despite expressing reservations about discussing her shaved head, fearful it would be perceived as a publicity stunt."
"Practical reasons also came into play. The bald cap that would have been necessary took a long time to apply and caused glue to get stuck in her hair. And Ms. van den Heever will appear in the movie theater simulcast of the opera, when high-definition cameras pick up the tiniest of details — including the edges of a bald cap. 'People will be looking for it,' she said."If you read Wakin's article, EvdH said at one point that "she does not particularly consider herself a diva". From her intermission banter 2 weeks back with Joyce Di Donato (!) during the Met HD-cast then of Berlioz's Les Troyens, I don't think that she was kidding. She seemed a bit nervous doing the interview, and said more or less that she tends not to be demonstrative or particularly outgoing, which made it more of a challenge to play Elizabeth I, who had to be strong when needed (which was obviously a lot, if you're an absolute monarch).
For today's HD-cast, Deborah Voigt was the hostess, and got to do the intermission banter this time with both leads. With EvdH, after an initial quick bringing up the microphone closer to her mouth, she seemed a touch more at ease, perhaps because she was in costume and obviously on adrenalin from the performance. She also gave a goofily giddy shoutout to her friends in South Africa, Europe and elsewhere, almost like a teenager at the prom.
The conductor, Maurizio Benini, is about as un-maestro-like as a conductor can look, almost like an Italian bureaucrat, if that makes sense. However, he obviously has this music in his blood and paced the opera very well. Nice work and camera shots of the solo clarinettist in the overture, for example.
So overall, a pretty straightforward day at the (digital) opera, without crazy cast changes or drama like that such as with Les Troyens recently. Of course, both Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda end with the title characters going up the stage steps to the scaffold, so that might get a bit old, stage-wise, by the time the Met hits Roberto Devereux. But since I'd never seen or heard Maria Stuarda in any form before, I wanted to check this out. I'm glad I did overall.
BTW, if you have way too much time on your hands:
(a) This is a rehearsal session from 2005, with Joyce Di Donato singing Elizabeth (not Mary):
(b) There's also this version, in English, from English National Opera, conducted by the late great Sir Charles Mackerras:
So with that, since this is another mash-up, the usual 2 options for chit-chat:
(a) Comments about the opera and this production, or:
(b) The usual SNLC protocol (if you're not a regular, you can glean from my tip jar the general idea).
Of course, as always, both options can be practiced in the same comment :) .