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Red queen

Joyce DiDonato is taking her Mary Stuart on the road, so to speak. She’ll sing it in London, Berlin, and Barcelona. She’ll be working with Patrice Caurier as director. For those who want an idea of what to expect, the Met has now released on DVD last season’s production of Maria Stuarda.  It’ll be interesting to see how DiDonato’s portrayal changes and grows with different directors and increased familiarity with the role. I’m also curious to see how she’s received in this role abroad.

In the U.S. a lot of DiDonato’s popularity is not just tied to her singing but to who she is—the Yankee diva, a hard-working, conscientious musician who also speaks out on a variety of social and artistic matters. But even in the U.S., there’s a certain snob factor I’ve heard creep into discussions about DiDonato. Like she’s a jolly good singer, a “nice gal,” but not a Big Fucking Deal Diva.

Maria Stuarda is her first foray into Big Fucking Deal Diva repertory. How does it stack up, then, against all the Big Fucking Deal Divas who have sung/sing this role?

Well, it’s not a total triumph, but it’s an admirable effort. I saw this production of Maria Stuarda when it first premiered I went to compare my initial impressions of the performance to impressions I got while watching the video. A lot of my initial impressions of the performance and production were re-confirmed by watching the video.

For instance, at the time I thought Mary was an awkward fit for DiDonato’s voice, and I still think that. Not that she didn’t sing it with musicality and taste, but the sustained high tessitura of the role (even with some transpositions) tends to expose the weaknesses of her voice—the vibrato that turns into a bleat, a certain hardness in her upper register, and the fact that her voice is essentially a slender instrument that is exquisite in Mozart, Rossini, or baroque music but lacks a certain grandeur that Maria Stuarda requires.

With that being said, there are still many things to admire about the mezzo’s vocalism. It’s always so clean and stylish. It’s kind of interesting to compare her Maria Stuarda to Anna Netrebko’s Anna Bolena. If we could merge Joyce’s impeccable musical accuracy with Anna Netrebko’s clarion voice and charisma, we’d have the perfect heroine to play all three Donizetti queens.

At the time I also thought that Joyce’s portrayal of Mary was too “nice and self-effacing” and that even in big moments like when she hurls the insult “Figlia impura di Bolena! Vil bastarda!” there wasn’t any fire in the belly. Well, the video actually changed my initial impression. The close-ups gave an intimacy to the portrayal that wasn’t visible in a large auditorium, and DiDonato’s Mary worked much better dramatically than I remembered.

Joyce says in the intermission interview that the conflict between Elizabeth and Mary was compelling because “they are both so right.” Meaning they both acted out of their deeply held religious and personal convictions, and not out of any malice. If taken in that context then DiDonato’s reading of Mary is very intelligent. She doesn’t spit out “Figlia impura…” because Mary doesn’t see those words as an insult—she sees them as simple fact.

DiDonato’s portrayal of Mary is consistent. She’s dignified and righteous, as a Catholic martyr should be.  I like the overall stoicism with which DiDonato goes to the execution. Opera lovers might complain that it’s not exciting enough, but DiDonato carries her concept of Mary from start to finish and for that she must be admired.

Elsa van den Heever (Elizabeth) I described as being “more can belto than bel canto but it was fun.” The video if anything makes van den Heever even more fun to watch, as things I missed in the theater were highlighted in HD. The opening scene has Elizabeth acting kinky with what looks like a microphone but actually seems to be a weird sex toy with which she prods her jesters from behind.

Her soprano voice is rather shrill and strident. But she supplies an appropriate yin to Mary’s yang. If Mary’s going to be all dignified and beatific someone has to do a Bette Davis impersonation. It’s interesting to hear Donizetti’s vocal writing for Elizabeth. It’s more declamatory and at times almost veristic, a constant contrast to Mary’s florid, angelic vocal line.

I thought at the time the men (Matthew Polenzani as Leicester, Matthew Rose as Talbot and Joshua Hopkins as Lord Cecil) were all decent but that in this dual prima donna opera they kind of got lost in the woodwork. After watching the video I noticed something about Polenzani’s voice that I also noticed in yesterday’s Cosi fan tutte broadcast—that his once buttery smooth timbre (almost too smooth) now has a creeping nasal sound that I’m not sure I entirely like. Also, Matthew: lay off the eyeshadow.

Maurizio Benini was a pleasant surprise—I always thought of him as one of those unassuming conductors, whose work you never really notice. But the HD video made the Met orchestra sound absolutely fantastic, truly a world-class orchestra. And the Met chorus (led by Donald Palumbo) is always amazing.

David McVicar’s production I described as “straightforward, inoffensive, but also somewhat unimaginative” at the time. John MacFarlane’s sets evoke Tudor England in a semi-stylized way. When I rewatched the video I found McVicar’s production more detailed than I remembered, but not always in a good way.

For instance, in the theater I admired the fact that he had Mary take off her black dress to reveal a red petticoat as she walked to the executioner’s block. This was a nice nod to history, as Mary Stuart did exactly that. Red is the color of martyrdom in the Catholic Church. But McVicar also had Mary strip off her auburn wig to reveal a head of gray, short hair. This is a directorial cliche: wig off = the real heroine, stripped of all pretenses.

But the historical Mary actually kept her wig on and only when the head was held up did her head roll out of the wig, revealing that she did indeed have graying, short hair. This grisly scene says a lot about Mary: she might have thought of herself as a martyr for the cause, but she was also every inch a queen, and she micro-managed her own execution. I wish McVicar could have incorporated Mary’s own sense of theater and drama into his production.

Another McVicar touch which was obvious in HD close-ups but not so much in the theater is that he directs Mary to have tremors (Parkinsonism?) in the last act. I understand the desire to make Mary a real, middle-aged woman but the trembling was distracting in the relentless close-ups. This was an effect that played better in the theater than on video.

I do think however that McVicar’s approach to these operas is the right one: these fictionalized historical dramas about the Tudor Queens are so embedded in films, plays, books, TV series, and documentaries, that radical re-imaginings are counter-productive. It’s like remaking Gone With the Wind.


  • vilbastarda says:

    Yet another missed opportunity by the Met to engage Anna Caterina Antonacci as Elisabetta. She and Joyce would’ve made a killer pair. Can only dream about what a smash hit that would’ve been.

    I really wanted to like Elsa van den Heever, but I found her voice unfocused, and dry in the house, and simply not pretty in HD. Joyce’s voice is also not the epitome of gorgeousness, but she knows how to work with the instrument that she has, and her musicality compensates plenty. I was quite moved by her performance, every time I saw this production, didn’t find her too tame, just very smart and effective. And transposed parts didn’t bother me at all, after all bel canto singing is not (just) about glorious high notes, it is about expression through musical line, and Joyce is a master of that.

    But have to disagree with Ivy about Benini’s conducting. My sense of bel canto was quite insulted by his conducting. I found him galloping through parts that required more lyricism, and simply lacking style.

    McVicar is a director that I quite enjoy, I think he manages to be innovative, and creates thought provoking productions while staying within “traditional” settings.

    • Poison Ivy says:

      vilbastarda, I was also thinking that Antonacci would have been great as Elisabeth. And actually I found this video and was thinking that if there’s anyone Joyce DiDonato reminds me of it’s Mariella Devia. Not in terms of voice or range, but in the way both take a very clean, consistent, controlled approach to music. Neither have the most beautiful voices but that controlled, clean, disciplined approach to this kind of music is what I associate with DiDonato and what I associate with Devia.

      • Guestoria Unpopularenka says:

        Penda, too, is a bombastic Elisabetta. Of course, neither her or Antonacci would have been cast since they’d completely overshadow such an insipid Stuarda.

      • semira mide says:

        Oh dear, having heard both Devia and DiDonato in recital I will respectfully have to disagree. They are miles apart. They are both wonderful, but to hear their respective Elenas in “La Donna del Lago” is almost like hearing two different characters. I think Devia’s introspection often gets mistaken for control. I love the Antonacci/Devia Stuarda, and I don’t think there ever was that kind of electricity in the Met production. Benini can be a good conductor, but he sounds “tired of bel canto” sometimes.
        But aren’t we lucky to be able to have both productions on DVD so we don’t HAVE to choose?

        • coloraturafan says:

          I’ve seen Devia in Stuarda twice in Naples, and DiDonato in Stuarda twice in Houston. No comparison at all, nothing alike. Personally I think DiDoanto is a better voice for Stuarda, in fact I think a voice with a lower center works better in gernal for Stuarda. For me, Devia is almost always uncomfortable on stage. The lady can sing, but she’s never been a commanding figure on stage which lead to a rather boring performance in Naples. I remember when I saw her in a concert performance of Lucrezia Borgia in Ancona, she was on stage waiting to start her “com e bello” she looked like she was going to shit a brick. I’ve never seen a singer so uncomfortable standing on stage. I actually felt bad for her. I thought maybe the stress of the evening was too much.

          • Evenhanded says:


            Coloraturafan, I am very surprised that you don’t have much good to say about Devia. Or perhaps just in this role? I love DiDonato as much as the next guy, but IMO, Devia is MILES beyond DiDonato in terms of natural vocal endowment and technical aplomb. JDD is amazing, for sure, but her voice is less focused than Devia’s and has MUCH less tonal lustre. I have seen Devia a half-dozen times live, and while she can be emotionally cold (controlled), her vocalism has epitomized what I would expect in terms of “bel canto” style and phrasing.

            I agree that JDD’s voice sits nicely for Stuarda, but ultimately, a soprano is better suited to the music, IMO. Of the three Donizetti queens, Stuarda has the most cantabile music allied to the most passive characterization. Because of this, I think a bit of extra verve is warranted -- particularly in the confrontation scene. Overall, I think it was the best queen for Sills (best fit for her lighter voice), Sutherland (too passive for me), and Caballe (gorgeous). Bolena and Elisabetta require an altogether different vocal approach.

            • coloraturafan says:

              Yes of course I agree Devia is a great singer, in the greatest bel canto tradition. But for me, watching her on video and seeing her live are two very different experiences.

              The last few performances I saw live were a little lackluster (Stuarda Naples, Puritani Cagliari and Traviata Bologna). It always looks like she is uncomfortable and stressed. This was confirmed for me when I would see how she reacted with fans after the performance, cold and forced.

            • tiger1dk says:

              Coloraturafan and Evenhanded, I think it is a somewhat strange thing to say that “JDD’s voice sits nicely for Stuarda”, when she had to transpose several of the key numbers. Of course, you can say that she sings and acts the part well (to which I would tend to agree) -- but is the transposition not clear proof that her voice does NOT sit nicely for Stuarda, at least as written by Donizetti?

          • A. Poggia Turra says:

            coloraturafan -- she does look a bit nervous in this photo:


      • vilbastarda says:

        Ooooh yeah, I know this video, and this production very well. It was a controversial production, with strange costumes, but I find it very effective.

        See, to me DiDonato and Devia are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. I actually find Devia’s voice very beautiful, and of course she has perfect technique. Devia is the type of singer that values beautiful, perfect vocal production above all. I never heard her live, for obvious reasons, and would love to be able to come to her Roberto Devereux in June, but a lot of stars will have to align perfectly for me to be able to do that. DiDonato, and Antonacci for that matter are singers that start with the meaning, and text, and musical line, and adjust their vocal production to the meaning that they want/need to convey. And both have voices that are not always the most beautiful, but they communicate and infuse meaning like no others, and are extremely musical. I actually think that having their approach helps them greatly with their vocalisation, and smooths some vocal imperfections.

        • Krunoslav says:

          I think many who refer to Devia as if she were just some kind of voice machine re trapped in memories of her Met career; but as you say you have never seen her onstage it’s not that.

          No one would argue that she is a Scotto or Callas dramatically, but tome there is considerable emotion in the tone and phrasing and that she can be quite affecting onstage.

          She is certainly streets ahead of Fleming or Gruberova here:

          And this- besides what extraordinary vocalism it is from a 59 year old with 4 decades of singing behind her-- does not strike me a emotionless singing that;s just about making ‘beautiful tone”. Of course JDD like Antonacci is a better and more detailed physical actress, but I would *hardly* put Devia as her opposite. Nor, I believe, would JDD, who went out of her way in interviews to mention her admiration for Devia’s legacy in this part.

          Here’s hoping she’s in good form for DEVEREUX in June.

          • Poison Ivy says:

            Kruno, here’s a video taken just a few weeks ago of Devia singing the finale of Maria Stuarda:

            • Krunoslav says:

              Thanks, Ivy. That’s still pretty remarkable ( for a 66 year old!),even though some of the velvet has worn off in 8 years and the acuti are no longer perfection. I ‘d say there is emotion in this singing! And also a complete understanding of the style.

          • coloraturafan says:

            I think the La Scala Borgia that you posted is one of Devia’s greatest moments. Vocally she was just at the edge of her peak, the “era desso” is as good as it gets.

          • vilbastarda says:

            I didn’t mean being opposite as one being good and the other bad. Both are amazing singers, just different, very different. And I admire greatly Devia’s vocalism, and artistry, and her longevity. Also, in case of DiDonato and Antonacci, it is not just the physicality of their interpretations, it is their approach to conveying musical meaning. You can hear it in their audio only recordings. They start with the textual meaning, they “sing the text”, while Devia’s approach is more of singing the music and superimposing text to it. Devia, in a way has a more instrumental approach, imho.

            • Poison Ivy says:

              I guess what I mean is that neither DiDonato and Devia intentionally try to set the house on fire. That doesn’t mean they can’t set the house on fire, but both of them sort of dot their i’s and cross their t’s when they approach a role, and to some that’s extreme control, and to others, it’s “boring” or “calculated.” (That’s a term I’ve heard used against both Devia and DiDonato.)

              They’re a contrast to, say, Caballe, who could be very sloppy, but then she could do this:

            • Krunoslav says:


            • semira mide says:

              Having seen numerous rehearsal videos of Devia, I think you are on to something vilbastarda. Devia’s approach does seem really to be more “singing the music and superimposing text”.

              Thanks Coloraturafan for your comments about her live performances in opera ( lucky you). I can imagine in the abstract being disappointed with her. A friend who attended her Norma in Bologna said it was sublime, but disappointing. It sure is hard to be a critic these days!

            • armerjacquino says:

              Can I- inevitably- bring in Janowitz as another example? Nobody will ever call her an actor (although one part, Leonore, made her catch fire dramatically in a way that no other part seems to have done) and she had an irritating tendency to facial and physical placidity. But I think there *is* passion and power and pain in her singing. Her NOZZE Countess, on video, looks unbothered, but the audio is full of pain. In the film of ARIADNE, she does nothing whatsoever facially, but if you listen to it you hear a transition from resignation to rapture.

              Devia to me is the same- she does a lot dramatically with the music, even as she doesn’t do a great deal physically.

              Ideally, of course, we get both- Callas being the obvious example, but there are many others. But I think there’s room for the Janowitzes and Devias- just as there’s room for the singers with imperfect vocalism (to varying extents Stratas, late Scotto and even Poplavskaya spring to mind) who can bring something theatrically riveting to what they do.

            • Camille says:

              Armerj—I have a Janowitz question for you: do you happen to know the movie “The Shawshank Redemption”? and if you do, is it she featured in the excerpted “Sull’aria” in the film?

              Just wondering. No biggie. A very beautiful and touching scene. I’ll go see if I can find it on YouTube.


            • armerjacquino says:

              Yes, it’s a film I liked a lot, and the use of the music in that scene is beautiful.

      • Poison Ivy says:

        Guesta I don’t think DiDonato’s Mary is “insipid.” I think it’s not as high-drama as people prefer, but read Mary’s real-life letters:

        As you can see, Mary was a woman who took her own royal heritage very seriously. She had exquisite manners and worried about her servants, her burial, respect for her religion, her royal blood, etc. In that sense I think Joyce’s dignified, lady-like approach makes perfect sense: it’s very much how Mary saw herself and probably how she behaved in everyday life.

        As I said, “vil bastarda” is meant to be a grave insult to Elizabeth, but to many Catholics with Mary’s religious upbringing, it wasn’t an insult. It was fact. I think Joyce’s approach to the role is very valid.

        • Guestoria Unpopularenka says:

          Maybe it does make sense but in the end the opera is not a historical document on Mary Stuart. After all, the meeting between the two never even took place.
          But I don’t understand what you mean by vil bastarda not being an insult for Catholics. After all, being born out of wedlock or be the product of sin is a big deal for them.

          • Poison Ivy says:

            When I mean it’s not an insult, I mean that Mary with her Catholic upbringing would have thought that it was Elizabeth who was insulting the thrown by being a bastard child and ruling when she had no right to the throne. Mary was pointing out the obvious and to her Elizabeth is the one being brazen by acting like a Queen, when by rights she should have been deposited at a nunnery and treated as a child of sin.

            I know this is a weird reference but I think about the Dred Scott decision:
            “In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument…They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

            Read today this is a horribly racist, offensive decision, especially the infamous line “no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” but to Roger Taney and a certain mindset, he didn’t intend to be racist and offensive. To him, he was just pointing out/reminding the Dred Scotts of the world what their place was, and that they were NOT valued as people, but as property.

            I think of Mary’s line as similar logic: Elizabeth to her is a bastard, a child of sin, she has no right to even be in the same room as me, much less rule over me.

  • Niel Rishoi says:

    Both singers are ON here:

  • Guestoria Unpopularenka says:

    She clearly knows what she’s singing about