Clash of the Queens: Maria Stuarda at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos

Donizetti – Maria Stuarda

Maria Stuarda, regina di Scozia – Ekaterina Bakanova
Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra – Alessandra Volpe
Anna Kennedy – Rita Marques
Roberto, conte di Leicester – Leonardo Cortellazzi
Giorgio Talbot – Luís Rodrigues
Lord Guglielmo Cecil – Christian Luján

Coro do Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa / Fabrizio Maria Carminati.
Stage director – Andrea De Rosa.

Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, Portugal.  Friday, January 31st, 2020.

For its new production of Maria Stuarda, the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos imported Andrea De Rosa’s staging from Rome, Italy.  As always at this fine theatre, the house assembled an interesting cast of international and local singers, here under the direction of the experienced bel canto conductor, Fabrizio Maria Carminati.

Photo: © Susana Chicó

Maria Stuarda is a work of extreme passion, of the desperate holding on of power – by any means necessary.  On this of all nights, the lines ‘Or dell’Anglia la pace è sicura, la nemica del regno già muor’ had particular resonance, as indeed did the idea of a desperate, power-hungry English ruler creating Scottish suffering just to hold on to power.  Yet De Rosa’s staging felt anodyne, not even attempting to mine the drama within.  Those who like their opera as fashion show will no doubt have appreciated some of the attractive couture (Ursula Patzak) worn by the ladies.  It was surprising how, for someone locked up at Fotheringay, Maria Stuarda was glamorously dressed and impeccably coiffed.  Indeed, even as she was taken to the gallows, her hair still looked immaculate, adorned with a regal headpiece.  She might have been about to lose her head, but at least it looked fabulous when it went.

Photo: © Susana Chicó

Direction of the singers was also perfunctory, with much standing in rows at the front with arms outstretched, singing to the audience, even when addressing other characters.  I longed for characters to actually engage with each other – as Stuarda went for Elisabetta with her celebrated denunciation, there was a distinct lack of dramatic electricity, Stuarda addressing this to the audience rather than staring directly into Elisabetta’s eyes as she called her a ‘vil bastarda’.  Still, there were some interesting visual touches.  De Rosa set the opening of Act 2 with only a chair and a candle as a set, which could have been even more striking had the personenregie been stronger.  Similarly, as Stuarda was taken to the gallows, a hooded executioner towered over the chorus arranged in rows, the axe looming over the imminent beheading.  Again, I’m sure there are some who might appreciate this approach.  It sanitizes this gruesome story and makes it more about attractive dresses and emoting to the audience.  Yet, I longed for something that pushed the singers to create drama, to bring out the passion, and to mine the deep range of emotions inherent in the work.

Photo: © Susana Chicó

This impression was magnified by Carminati’s conducting.  The house band, the Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa, is a very fine one and I just wished that Carminati had pushed them even more.  Attack was unanimous but flaccid, soft-grained where I longed for a sharpness of approach.  His tempi were on the moderate side of swift and I wished that he had pointed the rhythms more and asked the strings to play with less vibrato.  The brass made a fantastic noise in the queenly confrontation but again, in common with the staging, a firmer hand could have produced much more electricity.  The excellent house chorus sang with vibrant yet well blended tone, pulling back on the dynamics to quite magical effect.

Photo: © Susana Chicó

Ekaterina Bakanova was a very interesting discovery in the title role.  The Russian soprano has a wonderfully well-schooled bel canto technique, with an instinctive sense of line, an impeccable legato and is the owner of a genuine trill.  Her pearly tone, with a touch of acidity, is redolent of Edita Gruberová, but without the Slovak diva’s swooping; instead, she approached every note head on.  She also added some impressive acuti, capping the ensembles with an exciting edge.  Bakanova had clearly worked on the text, but it felt that she could have done much more with it, singing with the text rather than over it, using the words to colour the line and bring out even more meaning.  She dispatched her denunciation with venomous force and added some extremely attractive variations to the line.  She caressed the line with love in her Act 1 duet with Leonardo Cortellazzi’s Leicester.

Photo: © Susana Chicó

Cortellazzi also gave a great deal of pleasure.  The voice is extremely well placed, bright and forward which, in this grateful acoustic, meant that it resonated quite magnificently around the room.  His native diction brought the text to life, colouring the words and finding deeper meaning.  At first, there was a little tightness on top in his opening number, but this soon dissipated as he warmed up, the top later pinging out with freedom.  Cortellazzi is also the owner of a very fine legato, the line always even.

Photo: © Susana Chicó

I first came across Alessandra Volpe as a strong Eboli in St Gallen.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t as convinced by her Elisabetta.  While she was certainly gutsy and made much of the text, the voice here sounded soft grained and lacking in resonance.  The top is certainly exciting, though it requires a fair bit of heavy lifting to get up there, and she wasn’t afraid to descend into some juicy chestiness – even if the registers didn’t sound ideally integrated.  Her coloratura was bumpy, seemingly dispatched through sheer force of will, and her legato similarly lacking in smoothness.  I did wonder whether Volpe was indisposed but no announcement was made.

Photo: © Susana Chicó

The remainder of the cast demonstrated the satisfying standards of this address.  Christian Luján sang Cecil in a robust baritone of good size. Luís Rodrigues was a sympathetic Talbot, even if the voice is inclined to dryness, while Rita Marques sang Anna Kennedy with an attractive, grapefruit-toned soprano.

Photo: © Susana Chicó

In many respects this was a satisfying performance – Bakanova and Cortellazzi both demonstrated very good stylistic understanding, while Volpe certainly went for it.  The house orchestra and chorus also demonstrated why Lisbon deserves a place on any serious opera lover’s plans.  Yet at the same time, it felt like something of a missed opportunity simply because forces of this quality deserve a staging richer in drama and conducting that pushed the orchestra to an even higher level.  Both the staging and the conducting felt rather genteel when really, they should crackle with electricity – despite the undisputed excellence of the playing.  Still, it was undoubtedly worth the journey.

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