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Wigs and weaves

It’s easiest to write reviews when there are soaring triumphs and miserable failures. This is true in any field.  One need only look back at the review of Birgit Nilsson‘s legendary debut as Isolde in 1959 or Pete Wells‘ much more recent takedown of Guy Fieri‘s “restaurant” in Times Square.  

However, if a critic conistently gets too caught up in hyperbole (critical or laudatory), he quickly loses credibility.  It’s those damned middling reviews that really exemplify one’s voice as a ”critic.”  Those are not that fun to read, and not that fun to write.  But you’ll have to bear with me because the Met’s premiere of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda inspired just such a review.

The opera “crackles with romance,”  or so David McVicar tells us.  I’m inclined to agree, and so is history.  The plot centers around a fictitious meeting between Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart.  The libretto is based on a Schiller play that also concocted a love triangle between Mary, Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester.  Rehearsals for the premiere resulted in the singers cast as the two queens breaking into a brawl after the confrontation scene in which Mary spews out the infamous “vil bastarda” (vile bastard) insult.

The world premiere was canceled in Naples after the dress rehearsal, since King apparently wasn’t down with hearing a monarch (of whom his wife was a descendent) called a whore on stage. The piece was revamped but also banned at La Scala, and except for a few scattered performances in the 1860s, was largely ignored for almost a century afterward.  It popped up again during the bel canto revival with the help of brilliant sopranos such as Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé and Beverly Sills who couldn’t resist delving into Donizetti’s rich score and the iconic exploits of the martyred Mary Stuart.

Unsurprisingly, the most famous bit of the score is that notorious, censored, verbal smackdown outside of Fotheringhay castle.  Stuarda is a diva show through and through.  Indeed, yours truly held on tightly to her weave, just in case Elizabeth or Mary got out of hand, reached up and snatched it off my head all the way in the family circle.

First things first: credit where credit is due.  Top marks go to David McVicar, John MacFarlane and Jennifer Tipton for fashioning such a beautiful Tudor England .  The sets are spacious and unobtrusive.  The singers had plenty of space to move about and the emphasis was on human drama and not the spectacle of monarchal Europe.  MacFarlane’s elegant constructions are much like those in Charles Edwards’ Trovatore in that there are no awkward lulls in the drama because the sets simply ascend to the rafters to reveal/transform into other sets when their use has expired.

His costumes were absolutely stunning.  They were hyperrealistic, ornate and beautiful.  The lighting was effective throughout, particularly in Maria’s execution scene.  What a masterful use of chiaroscuro Tipton employed with the chorus emerging from the bright doorway upstage and silhouette of the executioner looming above the staircase up which Maria must march to be beheaded!

The direction shrewdly focused on the interaction between the characters.  Apparently McVicar is not a fan of an unnecessarily cluttered stage.  In Act I when the court is awaiting Elizabeth the hustle and bustle was very efficient symmetrical.  He must have told choreographer Leah Hausman something to that affect, because even the backflipping court jesters mirrored each other in the opening scene.

And the musical elements are also on a high level.  Maurizio Benini did the finest conducting we’ve heard from him at the Met so far, bringing out out some lovely, buoyant playing from the Met orchestra.  The orchestra was right with the singers, who seemed committed to the stylem complete with lovely decrescendos on the half cadences followed by portamenti that skillfully linked phrases together and deftly adding to the flow of the music.

Donald Palumbo‘s chorus is proving to be one of the best in the world singing with superb balance and sonority during Mary’s prayer at the end of the opera.  Top vocal honors go to the compulsively listenable Matthew Polenzani.  It’s nice to see that he is finally getting the recognition he deserves this season with two HD performances.  His ringing tenor voice and exquisitely colored phrasing (particularly when he is imploring Elizabeth to have mercy on the Maria) were the high point of the evening.  He may well be the best lyric tenor on the Met’s  roster.

So much good stuff in this show, right?  What the fuck is my beef?

The ladies. They simply missed the mark.  Given the vocal and histrionic attributes of these two singers, I found myself wondering what the show would have been like if each had been cast in the other’s role.

Elza van den Heever made an inconsistent Met debut as Elizabeth, more crotchety old lady than fierce rival.  Her voice was quite present, but there were were quite a few smeared runs and a handful of curdled top notes.  I wanted a little more firmness  in the middle voice than she had at her disposal.  Still, the phrasing was quite nice and she held her own in her duets with Leicester and Maria.  I’d like to see her in another perhaps more gracious role.

Maria Zifchak, Joshua Hopkins and especially Matthew Rose provided sturdy vocalism if little personality to the evening, but that’s beside the point.  This is Maria’s show.  And unfortunately, the largest disappointment of the evening was the spunky Kansan underdog-cum-diva du jour herself, Miss Joyce DiDonato.

Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing scandalous in the least about her performance.  The voice is mostly resonant and true.  She has a masterful technique and a command of the style.  But she did not convince me that her urgent mezzo was an ideal fit for the part.  The pianissimo top tones bordered on straight tone.  To my taste this effect can be effective in Baroque repertoire, but in bel canto in quickly becomes grating.

Conversely, her forte singing occasionally found vibrato widening into a bleat.  When she had been going full blast in dramatic declamations, and this was followed by a sustained top tone (as in her cabaletta “Nella pace”) the voice thinned out noticeably.

Vocal shortcomings can, however, be overcome by artistic commitment, but that is where DiDonato really disappointed me.  It is admirable that she mentioned in her interview with the New York Times that she does not feel the need to compete with ghosts, but the ghosts were out in full force in my mind’s eye last night.  So maybe she doesn’t have the diamond bright top tones and stratospheric coloratura of Sutherland or the ethereal pianissimos of Caballé, does she she have the fire of Leyla Gencer?  Well, no.

DiDonato was definitely committed throughout the entire evening, but the part needs bolder choices than she was making.  She didn’t channel her inner bitch well enough to be appropriately hair raising when she curses Elizabeth.  Worse yet, she did not suffer convincingly, and thus I didn’t suffer with her.  I saw a caricature of anguish and pathos, nothing more.  She had no X-factor.  Her performance, while perfectly competent, left me ice-cold.

The evening was most infuriating because there was no one to be mad at.  It’s so much fun to curse Jonathan Friend for his wretched casting or Peter Gelb for letting him turn the Met into a a pantomime-beauty-pageant-museum for warhorse operas.  To the contrary this was exactly what we would hope the Met would be doing; taking a lesser known masterpiece and putting it before a larger audience via movie theatre broadcast in a high quality production with top level artists.

On this particular night all of the elements (beautiful production, clever direction, fabulous conductor and top notch singers) were in place for a great evening yet the performance just didn’t manage to catch fire.  I wanted magic complete  with shiny high D’s, glittering pianissimos held for an obscenely long time, soul wrenching phrasing, or other such glorious vocal excesses.  I wanted fire and blood.  I wanted to be hauled out on a stretcher in a state of post-traumatic operatic delirium, but alas, it was not to be.  All I got was singers going through the motions.

Stuarda needs that wild sparkle of genius in order to transcend the work from wig-snatching bitch fight to gripping theatre and the ladies just didn’t deliver the goods.

Photos: Ken Howard.


  • Sanford says:

    The question came up as to who pays for the trasnposed parts, and Lindoro suggested that it would be easy to scan in the score and pick a new key. Actually, he’s pretty close to the mark. Both Finale and Sibelius, the two biggest names in musical notation software, allow you to scan in music into music html files. However, the scanning software is notoriously inaccurate. The easier process, which I do all the time when I need to transpose lieder and the like, is to notate the score as published. Both programs allow you the accuracy of producing scores that are virtually identical to published versions (which may, in fact, have used the software). Once completed, changing the key is as easy as a couple of mouse clicks. And all that would be necessary is for someone to go through and check enharmonic spellings. Using this process, it’s possible to take, for example, a song such as An Die Musik and save copies in virtually every key rather than just the low, medium, and high keys available commercially.

  • Camille says:

    Leontyne and Grace Alert for Sirius Subscribers!

    Aida from 1967 now playing. Bergonzi and Hines are intoning Immenso Phhhhhhhttttttaaaaahhhhhh at the moment.

    • MontyNostry says:

      Grace! Sorry, Janet, but that’s my kind of mezzo. (And sorry, Grace, but you were always really a mezzo.)

      • kennedet says:

        Agreed, Monty and I stubbornly refused to accept or follow her career when she became a soprano. It was like a horrible betrayal by a close friend. WHY DID SHE DO IT?????? INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW.

        • MontyNostry says:

          I don’t think she was ever really a soprano, but it didn’t stop me following her career. In full soprano (as opposed to falcon) roles she could sometimes be thrilling (if a little hit-and-miss) , but sometimes she made me think of Samuel Johnson’s comment on a woman preaching: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

          • MontyNostry says:

            By the way, she always claimed that The Voice told her to switch to soprano and that you need to listen to The Voice. She also said that there must have been some reason why someone like Solti was offering her Salome. Of course, there could have been some soprano envy involved.

          • kennedet says:

            Thanks. Yes, i remember reading something years ago that hinted at some rivalry with Verrett and one switching fachs therefore the other followed suit or vice-versa (I don’t remember). However, I will always remember the beautiful lush sound of her mezzo. Her lieder and french melody as a mezzo were also very sexy. I loved the way she entered a room and bowed. She is one sexy lady!!

    • kashania says:

      When the Met began the practice of playing historic broadcasts during dark weeks in January, I believe this Aida was the first one of the lot. I loved it.

      Price is at her considerable best, especially the third and fourth acts which she owned.

      I remember Bergonzi going for the “morrendo” effect as written in the score on the last B-flat of “Celeste Aida” and the note almost got away from him, but he trusted his technique, held onto the note and finished it beautifully. I was instantly won over.

      I think you could actually hear Hines’s cries of “Radames” bouncing off the back-wall of the Met (on recording!), such was the power of the voice.

      And Grace was simply UH-mazing.

      • MontyNostry says:

        I think Amneris really was Grace’s role. Astonishing to think she sang it at the age of 23 in Paris for her operatic debut. And even more amazing that she still has voice left over 50 years later, especially after everything she put it through in the 80s!

        • Camille says:

          I give the palm to La Grace in this performance, as Lee sounds scratchy and patchy in the middle, albeit beautiful high notes. Grace’s voice sounds so sopranoish here as well! I can understand how she went for Abigaille!

          Best of all is Bergonzi in this Aida; like a stream of liquid gold. Oh well, they have flown like a ray to heaven and Grace now invokes PACE!

          Indeed. For us all.

          • MontyNostry says:

            The first half of the scene seems to have disappeared from YouTube, but this (Orange 1977)is plenty to be going on with.

          • luvtennis says:

            Not to make excuses, but ’66-68 were incredibly demanding years for her. It’s a wonder she didn’t take a year off afterwards.

          • Bianca Castafiore says:

            Well, Cammillissima, in 1977, La Grazia (today’s birthday girl) considered herself a full soprano saying she’d no longer do Orfeo, Dalila or Azucena, and even proclaiming Bruennhilde and Isolde in her future (in a NYT interview in 1976 or so) because Mme Lehmann said so. By then she had already done (or on the verge of doing) Tosca, Lady Macbeth, Salome, Norma, Abigaille and Chimene.

            Happy Birthday, Mme Bumbry!!!!!!

        • kashania says:

          Agreed. It brought out all her virtues: the plummy colour of her chest notes, the thrilling spin on her high notes, the requisite dignity for the imperious moments, the passion verging on hysteria for the fourth act, and finally, beautifully placed pace d’imploros at the very end. Probably my favourite Amneris of all.

          • kashania says:

            “t’imploro”, not “d’imploro”

          • MontyNostry says:

            … and sexy with it -- not some kind of battleaxe.

          • kennedet says:

            I think there is a recording of “Amazing Grace” singing a rock ballad on one of her You Tube short documentaries. Also, amazing!!…. It made me feel that she could have been a successful at cross-over singer, although I’m glad she didin’t attempt it. Her Bess was not my favorite. She sounded like a “diva” in Catfish Row. I think it had a lot to do with her attitude towards the role, when interviewed.You can’t give your all to a role , if you think it’s degrading to your race, which I totally disagreed with.

          • MontyNostry says:

            Grace did make a crossover album, and I think even released a single called ‘Natalie’. And didn’t she collaborate with Dionne Warwick?

            She nails the crossover thing here. As ever, not to be messed with!

          • Bianca Castafiore says:

            Monty, did she ever sing a duet with Sinatra? I read something about that but have not seen/heard any evidence of it.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Blood and gore warning
    Here is a montage of the best stagings of the veal bastarda scene:

    • phoenix says:

      I hereby nominate Marion Lignana Rosenberg for the role of Elisabetta in the very next performance of Maria Stuarda.

  • ianw2 says:

    Be warned O Meade, O Moore, for this is thy future.

  • Camille says:

    According to this, kashania, Maria Stuarda would have been Anna Netrebko! Didn’t she say in an interview she was offered another of the Donizetti trilogy and felt Bolena would be best for her voice? I seem to recall such but don’t how or when I saw it. The thought of Gheorghiu as Bolen is an intriguing one, after hearing the beautiful rendition of the scena finale on YouTube. Fleming in Roberto Devereux—I don’t even want to imagine!

    Interesting to see which of these do actualize—the Ring, e.g.

    • kashania says:

      Ah, I remembered wrong. Yes, there was an interview in which Netrebko said that she felt her voice was too heavy for Maria Stuarda and too light for Elisabetta, but right for Anna Bolena.

      I wonder if the low-lying parts of Anna Bolena would expose Gheorghiu’s weakness in the lower-mid voice. Also, Maria Stuarda is the lightest of the three queens which is why I thought it the best fit for Gheorghiu. But I don’t know how interested she is in learning new rep. For example, we’ve bemoaned before the fact that she never went near Mozart. The Countess would seem like a lovely fit…

      • Camille says:

        Oh, then you do remember that interview with Netrebko and I didn’t make it up. Well, I think she made the right decision.

        Right at the moment I am feeling badly for Angie. No matter what a happy face one puts on it, the end of a marriage of that many years is, well, a very serious thing. I do hope she has a loveboat on the backburner to take the place of Bobby Baby. They were the golden couple. Well, we all know how THAT goes………!!!!!

        What about a Elettra for Angie? Too much? Donn’Elvira? not the primadonna part so she would not accept?

        • kashania says:

          I think Elettra might be too much. On the other hand, Angie is known to save her voice for the big moments and then pour out a surprising amount of sound. Elettra is essentially three arias (and a quartet and trio that don’t tax the singer). Still, don’t think her voice has the right thrust for the part.

          Re: Donna Elvira. If it was good enough for Schwarzkopf and Te Kanawa… but I just don’t think she is interested in singing Mozart.

          • armerjacquino says:

            I’ve said it before, and it’s never ever going to happen, but I would love to hear Gheorghiu in some Strauss- Marschallin, Arabella, VLL.

          • MontyNostry says:

            Does she ever sing anything in German? Incidentally, I’ve always thought that it was a perfect voice for Donna Elvira, though it would mean sharing the stage with too many other female singers and somehow Anna is the prima of the donne -- though I remember reading that Zerlina used to be considered the star female role in the show (why, I can’t think).

          • kashania says:

            I agree with all those choices. Has she ever sung anything in German?

          • armerjacquino says:

            Monty- I’d always assumed the Zerlina thing was a question of mid 19thC values. Virtue in peril, the unspoiled peasant girl, simple ‘airs’ to sing instead of complex dramatic stuff… lots of opportunities for dive to look winsome with a shepherd’s crook.

          • bassoprofundo says:


            Sorry for hijacking the thread but I wanted to ask you a quick question. Do you happen to know if the dress rehearsals at COC are open to everyone? I’m going to be in Toronto for the dress of Clemenza and would like to see it but as far as I can tell on the website they only let little kids in! is that true?

          • Clita del Toro says:

            Gheorghiu as the Marschallin--eeeeek.

          • armerjacquino says:

            Clita- we might need a little more than ‘eeeeek’. What exactly would you dislike? As I said, it’s never going to happen so no need to reach for the smelling salts.

            I think her voice would suit the role very well- there’s nothing that would faze her vocally in there and I think her soft-grained tone would be a lovely fit. Acting-wise I think she could be touching, if probably in the style of some of the grander Marschallins.

          • MontyNostry says:

            And she’d love having the whole middle act to repair her lipstick.

          • Clita del Toro says:

            Oh, just the thought of that bitch singing one of my favorite roles is eeeek-provoking. I am sure she would sing it well.

          • manou says:

            Well -- the first time I saw Gheorghiu she was a delectable Zerlina opposite the Don Giovanni of Tom Allen. Somehow she did not get top billing.

          • Camille says:

            Well, all righty then.

            How about Angie as Vitellia Tonnata?

            Maybe the Elettra is a bit too much but I think she would sweep the stage as Elvira.

            Look, she admits to 47. The party is over. Got to look at this mittelrollen and there are not all that many for her. Not like she will suddenly sing Ortrud or Kostelnicka.

            Just a thought.

          • kashania says:

            bassoprofundo: Yes, the COC dress rehearsals are for students mostly, with the few remaining tickets going to volunteers, artists and staff. Chris Alden’s production looks interesting!!

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            I’m not sure why Elettra would be too much. Without wanting to re-open the whole Tosca debate, surely the fact that she has sung that role almost more often than any other (at least recently) means she could make it through a role which, as Kashania says, is essentially 3 arias all centered on the upper-middle and lower-top where she has no projection issues. If she can summon up the temprament for Act II of Tosca and be heard through that orchestra, which she can, then there is no reason to suppose she couldn’t cope as Elettra.

            Moot point of course, for the reasons others have given.

            As for whether she has sung in German, she does an uncanny Janowitz impression in Wie bist du eine Blume which is somewhere on YouTube. I don’t recall much about the quality of the pronunciation, but she was game for a crack at every language in creation on that CD she did about 15 years ago with the black and white photo on the front of her in 50s garb (can’t think where she got the inspiration for that look).

          • And that booklet B&W photo with her posing with a 40s plane in the background is a not altogether unsucessful winsome wince at a very similar photo of Bidu Sayao. I love the “My World” album. The Ladino / Greek songs are especially successful IMO. Ditto the Poulenc.

  • Feldmarschallin says:

    Vitellia might be a bit low for Angie. Vocally the Marschallin would be a better fit. Even Elettra but I doubt she will be singing any of them. One doesnt start singing Mozart towards the end of the career if you never went near him before except for Zerlina. She could have been a lovely Countess too…but years ago.

  • notoriousBWV says:

    Well I finally went and saw it and I have to agree with almost everything you said. The opera is overall, underwhelming and I ended up leaving at intermission.

    DiDonato’s acting was, as usual, quite lovely and heart warming, but her singing was forced. The top register had a bleat when suing at full volume and went flat during pianissimi. I have to wonder if the role is just too high for her, even in this transposition. Perhaps she’s moved into the higher tessitura too quickly? Or perhaps the release of her recent VD is overwhelming her. I would imagine that Stuarda is a role that one prepares for years, allowing the muscle memory to settle in undisturbed.

    I liked the singing of the Elizabeth but was confused as to why she insisted on walking like a pirate. Is there a biography somewhere that presents the famous queen as a swashbuckler with an ulcer? Even if the data exists that Elizabeth walked like a man, it is distracting to watch and does not fit with the sparkling radiance of Donizetti’s music, or with the sleek opulence of this production.

    Polenzani was solid, but the role seemed a smidge on the high side for a tenor of his age.