Donizetti – Maria Stuarda
Maria Stuarda – Joyce DiDonato
Elisabetta – Carmen Giannattasio
Roberto, Conte di Leicester – Ismael Jordi
Guglielmo Cecil – Jeremy Carpenter
Giorgio Talbot – Matthew Rose
Anna Kennedy – Kathleen Wilkinson
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Bertrand de Billy.
Stage directors – Patrice Caurier & Moshe Leiser.
Royal Opera House, London. July 8th, 2014.
I missed the first night of this production, but the reports that came through via Twitter and reviews were of an evening where the memory of the excellent singing was ruined by the actions of a minority who chose to boo the staging. I don’t care for booing, I find it primitive and the ultimate expression of someone attempting to impose his or her views aurally on others. If you don’t like the show, that’s fine but there are ways of demonstrating this either by writing on the theatre’s website, tweeting about it, or doing precisely what I am doing right here, writing about it. I made the mistake of reading the comments on the Royal Opera’s ‘Your Reaction’ page and the negative ones, instead of saying something constructive and arguing their point of view, simply ranted about how the staging was an ‘insult’, how the directors hadn’t ‘read the libretto’ and various other pearls of wisdom. Yet, nothing was considered, nothing seemed to be argued and that, I find very difficult to take seriously. Those who read me often know that I was no fan of Kasper Holten’s Don Giovanni or Onegin for example, but for those, I gave clear and extensive reasons why. You don’t have to agree with me but I trust that you can see that I have considered that a lot of work and thought had gone into them, why I found each staging problematic and why they didn’t work for me. Everyone’s reactions to a show are different and there have been evenings that I have loved that others have hated. Each point of view is valid but at the same time, I will not thrust mine down anyone’s throat or ruin anyone’s enjoyment by braying loudly about it. There have been a couple of very interesting blog posts written about this over the last few days and they are well worth reading by Mike Volpe and Mark Berry.
In a way, it is most regrettable that I had to start this piece with that paragraph but I felt it necessary because even if those booers thought they were booing the production team, the impact would certainly have been felt by the singers too. If you don’t like the show, don’t applaud. It doesn’t ruin anyone else’s enjoyment but it does send a clear message. For me, tonight was a mixed evening. There was some spectacular singing but there was also much that didn’t quite convince and I seriously wonder whether things were a little more subdued as a result of the opening night’s events.
Joyce DiDonato tonight cemented her reputation as one of the greatest singers of today. Following her glorious Cendrillon at the Liceu last December, tonight she gave a commanding performance, completely encapsulating every aspect of Stuarda’s character, both vocally and histrionically. She has the rare, unteachable ability to understand the relationship between the dots and the words on the page and turn them into something magical that is the hallmark of the very greatest singers. She also has the ability to phrase the music to perfection, a profound understanding of the phraseology of the piece that worked marvellously. It would be incorrect to say it was perfect – there were a few passages in Act 2 where intonation sagged a little and it does sound like the role takes her to her limits. Yet, this is what makes DiDonato such a great artist and so satisfying to listen to. You know with her that this is someone who constantly works on her technique, who gets better with every performance and whose quest for excellence is unceasing. The voice has also grown in size and richness (something that was already evident at the Liceu). Every time I see DiDonato, I say that she is in her absolute prime but clearly, she still has so much more to give us. A truly great artist and a truly great performance.
She was surrounded by a decent, if perhaps not the most exciting, cast. Carmen Giannattasio distinguished herself from DiDonato with a more acidic tone. The coloratura was spot on, the tessitura was no problem with frequent dips into a chest register that was nice and firm. And yet, it didn’t quite, for me, have the same refinement that DiDonato’s performance had. I think it was a question of the phrasing, the ability to work a phrase and take it beyond the notes on the page. Don’t get me wrong it was well sung but I yearned for it to be more imaginatively phrased. Ismael Jordi’s tenor clearly shows the influence of his teacher, Alfredo Kraus, and he was fascinating to listen to. The placement of the voice means a very bright sound and he phrased eloquently and gave us some beautiful piano singing. The sound itself is interesting. It sounds quite tight when pressure is put on it which seems quite at odds with the way the sound is produced. His diction was superb and he was a suave and engaging stage presence.
The rest of the cast was fine without being overwhelming. Jeremy Carpenter brought a grainy baritone to Cecil and Matthew Rose’s Talbot was respectably sung. Kathleen Wilkinson’s Anna was efficient and the chorus were acceptable. The orchestral playing was a lot more polished than we have recently heard at this address and Bertrand de Billy led a nicely swift reading that papered over the cracks in the work. What I did miss was a crispness of attack and an imaginativeness of phrasing that would have matched DiDonato’s wonderful singing. While swift, it did feel a little driven and would have benefitted from being phrased more imaginatively. It was, however, highly respectable.
As for the staging, quite frankly, I have no idea what was so offensive that it caused that kind of reception. It was completely inoffensive and was an effective enough framework for the story. The key idea was that Elisabetta and Maria were in period costume while everyone else was in modern dress. This did raise ideas of the two Queens being trapped by power but other than that, it felt somewhat underdeveloped. The bulk of the action took place in the prison where Maria had projected images of the outside world on to the set which resulted in some very effective stage pictures. The final scene was devastating, Maria’s hair being cut by the executioner, alone in a room separated from the people and most of those she loved – it was indeed a fitting conclusion to that did justice to the poignancy of the finale. Personenregie was efficient and there were real sparks flying in the confrontation scene. I don’t think it’s the most revelatory staging of anything I have ever seen but it is in no way the worst and, let’s face it, this is not the most dramatically engaging of operas. It’s an opera that we see to watch the greatest singers perform technically fiendish feats of vocal excellence, and that is precisely what we got tonight. The staging did the job and certainly, in my view, did not deserve the reception that it received.
Tonight we saw greatness and I feel exceptionally privileged to have seen a singer of great accomplishment at the top of her game. She was more than ably surrounded by a strong cast of singers with much potential and a conductor who fully supported his artists.