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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.