BWW Reviews: DiDonato Provides Goosebumps in MARIA STUARDA at Barcelona's Liceu

By: Jan. 16, 2015

Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA is a chamber piece blown up to grand opera proportions.

That was the takeaway from the new production--that centers on a fictional battle royal between Elizabeth I (Elisabetta) and her cousin Mary (Maria) Stuart, better known as Mary, Queen of Scots--at Barcelona's historic opera house, the Liceu. It stars the sensational Maria of American mezzo Joyce DiDonato, the highly charged Elisabetta of Spanish mezzo Silvia Tro Santafé and Mexican tenor Javier Camarena's sonorous Roberto.

The year is 1587, 20 years after Mary was removed from the throne of Scotland and was forced to ask her cousin for asylum. The context may be historical but the opera's key scene is pure pulp fiction: the meeting of the two monarchs, which never took place. It is a bold contrivance and one that works brilliantly.

Period garb versus modern dress

The Patrice Caurier-Moshe Leiser production--they were the pair behind the Met's lamentable HAMLET a couple of seasons back--is technically not brand new, having already been seen at Covent Garden, the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw and the Théatre des Champs Elysées in Paris. Their idea's not new either, with more than a nod to a British theatre production of Schiller's play, MARY STUART, which visited New York a half dozen years ago, with a cast led by Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter.

Here, as there, Mary and Elizabeth are in period garb, while all "the little people" are in modern dress, including the key roles of Leicester (Camarena's bright, urgent sound worked well), Talbot (a suave performance by Italian bass Michele Pertusi), Lord Cecil (a slimy portrayal by Italian baritone Vito Priante) and Mary's maid Anna (sturdily sung by mezzo Anna Tobella).

Broad shoulders of DiDonato and Santafé

But the success or failure of the opera in performance rests on the shoulders of the Maria and Elisabetta and the two mezzos in charge were supremely up to the task. Despite any misgivings about the production--and I have many--the performances were first-rate. The pairing of DiDonato and Santafé was an unusual one, since both are mezzos. (In New York, DiDonato faced off against Elza van den Heever, a soprano, while the opera's first major modern performance featured soprano Montserrat Caballé opposite Shirley Verrett, then a mezzo.) Still, their sounds were different enough that it worked, even if both roles lay a bit high for the performers.

DiDonato's virtues are well known and she has made this role her own; she seemed to walk the tightrope between madness and anger more than in the more benign David McVicar production at the Met. It was a daring, visceral performance: Here, you could practically see the steam coming out of her ears--and Santafé was not far behind her. Santafé's voice has an acid quality about it that was perfect for the production, though I wonder how she would do in something that called for more suave singing.

A confrontation scene devised by Schiller

The opera's confrontation scene was devised by Schiller and Donizetti and his collaborators knew a good thing when they saw it, culminating in an interchange where Mary calls the queen "vile bastard of Boleyn." (There were those who backed Mary as rightful monarch of Britain.)

If the directors hadn't already shown their hand in a prologue added to the production--"off with her head," as the Queen of Hearts said to Alice, only with a ridiculous dummy--the scene between the two monarchs clinches Mary's fate. DiDonato is not afraid to make some ugly sounds (neither is Santafé) as she verbally attacks her cousin, and it sent chills down the spine to hear her fury.

While the physical production is downright awful--all the locations specified in the libretto jettisoned for a kind of "Mary Goes Alcatraz" by scenic designer Christian Fenouillat with costumes by Agostino Cavalca, both part of the Caurier-Leiser crew--I must say that the directors' concept brought across a sense of intimacy that took me by surprise: In particular, near the end of the opera, DiDonato reaches out of the window of her execution chamber and touches the hand of Leicester and it's devastating.

Over the top

There are, of course, more than a share of over-the-top moments that make one wonder whether the directors were having mood swings: I'll have a tough time forgetting Leicester's first meeting with the queen. Mezzo Santafé strips off Camarena's jacket, rips open his shirt and stops short of mounting him. (He seemed justifiably embarrassed.) And all that was missing from the confrontation scene between DiDonato and Santafé was someone whispering "catfight" and the monarchs rolling around on the floor choking each other.

Still, the singing carried the performance and conductor Maurizio Benini led a vigorous account of the score from the orchestra, with the chorus (under Peter Burian), of the Liceu, one of the world's most beautiful opera houses. They proved that "el belcantismo donizettiano"(bel canto, Donizetti-style in Spanish) is alive and well in the capital of Catalonia.


Photo: (left to right) Javier Camarena, Joyce DiDonato, Michele Pertusi (back to camera), AnnaTobella, Silvia Tro Santafé and Vito Priante.

Photo: Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda.

Photos © by Antoni Bofill