Dear friends and readers,
A grim and somber production, I think highly original. Joyce DiDonato’s singing and acting as the bewildered queen (probably was the sympathetic interpretation) was magnificent. She drew out the notes so slowly (there was a robo-camera at the bottom of the stage and many close-ups) that you could watch her face change as her notes changed, and Elza van den Heever perfect in her role as wary, driven, haggard Elizabeth (I will use the familiar Englished names). While the tenor, Matthew Polenzani as Leicester sang well, the way this was acted made him superfluous, irrelevant, this was no love tragedy. The one strong male who seemed to matter was Matthew Rose as the jailor-comforter of Mary, Talbot. The clash was of two women who don’t understand one another at all, shout insults, one murderous (Elizabeth), the other intensely persuaded she should be queen (Mary).
The production design and matching costumes (David McVicar and John Macfarlane) are not at all called for in the libretto. A key quality in Donizetti- Bardari’s concoction is it’s all surface. The psychology doesn’t quite make sense, there is no depth there. And all the politics are removed. So McVicar and Macfarlane made a masque for our era and then Joyce DiDonato poured herself into it. It opens in what we were told was a version of the globe and there were acrobats on a high stag- like rise.
The space soon seemed a abstract court scene all reds and blacks. Elizabeth takes coarse teasing in good stead and is persuaded much against her will to meet with Mary. The scene then morphed into a symbolic forest, bleak, cool colors where Mary is walking with Hanna and her ladies. Then the royal hunt is heard and the encounter (never happened in history because Elizabeth knew better than to do this) which in the play goes very badly. 11 years pass in the intermission.
It was the second act that made it. It opened with an aging trembling Elizabeth, nearly bald, waiting for her ladies to finish trussing her up in a heavy gown with hideous red wig.
This becomes a scene in a throne room where the rise of the first scene is now a table. Here she is pressured, but also wants to sign Mary’s death warrant by Cecil (Joshua Hopkins). Unlike Schiller’s Elizabeth, she is not torn about executing Mary. The room turns into a prison with the wall of graffiti.
The table comes up to later the bottom rung of a scaffold as the scene turns into a black box stage. And then very long, drawn out, Mary in prison told she is to die, Mary confessing to Talbot, Mary adjusting her mind, the choral scene of grief and lamentation (the music like a funeral march), and then Mary comes out again bare-headed in red, jeered at sotto voce by Cecil but allowed to voice her supposed forgiveness of Elizabeth, and then long slow prayer song and then with Hannah up to her death.
I can see why it was not done and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena was. Anna Bolena is an action-packed play with light moments and certainly much romance in comparison. It was not until our time that this scripted opera can be played with people sitting there unsurprised. It had a checkered history on stage. It was supposed to be staged in Naples in 1834 but censorship issues got in the way (the execution, the two women clashing so calling each other whore, harlot, illegitimate). The two first singers got into a physical fight too. It was performed in a much milder version but that didn’t go and then at La Scala in its original script which disappeared pretty quickly. It was seen as very lurid. Revised according in 1865 it still was not acceptable (from Program notes by Helen M. Greenwald).
It really brought to mind other executions; we have become a society attuned to politicians murdering one another again, a world of prisons, people in them for years on end, and the powerful and newscasters delivering all fake performance before cameras. It may be said the contrast is in my mind (Saddam Hussein does not go out praying but cursing) but not the spectacles we see on TV where of grave opponents or treatise-signers, and lawless murder in the background. I thought of Marie Antoinette so dignified, but also the contrast somehow: Madame du Barry dragged out of her house to be guillotined when an old lady and ferociously fighting and cursing to the last moment.
Elsa van den Heever as Elizabeth wore high-heeled boots, first white then blood red mannish clothes. Under the wide skirt were heavy pants; she stalked about like a man. I really expected her to appear in armor with a assault weapon at any time. I liked the way Elizabeth was re-conceived, she was vital, not marmoreal. There was understanding for her, compassion when she looks so bad. Joyce DiDonato was all severe femininity. Not sexy but let’s say in the equivalent of a black pants suit. The white stomacher a version of a tailored blouse. She gradually moves to all black, until the last scene in a red gown (Mary is said to have worn one). Both auburn hair, both age intensely, Elizabeth looking haggard, bitter, ghost-like with semi-bald head before she has the wig put on in the opening scene, and Mary become someone continually shaking, distraught; she takes her auburn wig off when she comes out just before she climbs the stairs to her death. The parallels of Elizabeth putting on the wig and Mary taking it off effective. Under the wig a real women, the wig a kind of crown. At the close Mary was all regret, all humility, all loss, heroic visionary victim.
The theater crowded, and audience was pleased — some from conversations I overheard surprised to be so. But I also heard people discussing the characters in ways that showed me few people knew the history and this might (like many a bio-pic) just serve to mislead them further. The real Machiavel of Mary’s downfall is missing in most fictional retelling (except in Scott): James Stuart, Earl of Murray who became Regent once Mary came to the English shore. He outwitted her with ease. The historically real Elizabeth was in fact a good politician and wanted peace, and not to spend money. She hesitated at marriage and was right. She would have lost her independence and thus power. Leicester loved Leicester and had hoped to be king. It’s possible he had his first wife killed (see Scott’s Kennilworth).
The historically real Mary continually made bad decisions; her love life comprised and made her vulnerable to charges. Her choices were stupid (Darnley) or macho male adventurers (Bothwell). It was egregious folly to plot to kill Elizabeth while imprisoned by Elizabeth. In the 18th and 19th century Mary was the beautiful glamorous victim (from Lee’s Recess, through Scott and Schiller), her glamor allowing men and women to find her alluring and her supposed power attractive, and Elizabeth was the jealous Machiavel old maid. Bette Davis’s mid-20th century towering ambiguous character turned into a political figure in the Glenda Jackson series; and this has developed into the feminine semi-pathetic dignified figure that Helen Mirren played. 21st century: Elizabeth is softened into a pure lover first of Leicester and then Essex; Most recently in a popularly costumed version we have the new romance: Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and Barbara Flynn as Mary.
Well this Met production is not romance, it’s a new opposition, a political allegory. So a must-see.
Peter Gelb may say he chose to do Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the Met (never done there before) because he wanted more Bel Canto opera because that extends the repertoire, but it seems to me not a coincidence the really original production (not at all called for by that libretto) made the play relevant to our time. Two years ago Izzy and I saw Schiller’s Maria Stuarda in a WSC production, twinned with a semi-free adaptation of Shakespeae’s Richard III. The WSC brought out direct parallels between the characters in both plays and politicians’ treachery & barbarity today, and while Donizetti changed Schiller’s play by making Leicester a central love interest (the women are supposedly rivals for his love), and the 17 year old librettist, Giuseppe Bardari, simplified or made much feebler the words of the original play, still I think the parallels of cross-killing the WSC highlighted were in this Met production more subliminally.