The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

HGO: Donizetti's Maria Stuarda (new) - first for company. Joyce di Donato. Katie Van Kooten. Patrick Summers. Kevin Newbury. 27.4.12.

Houston Grand Opera, in its fifty-seven year history has not until this time put on a production of the second opera in the Donizetti Tudor Queen trilogy, Maria Stuarda. Dame Joan Sutherland, during the sunset years of her career, had HGO provide her a staged revival of Anna Bolena. This event, HGO’s first Anna Bolena, automatically carried with it a sense of grandeur, just in anticipating Sutherland taking on this peak role for the first time, both in concert at Lincoln Center and on stage here. The Metropolitan Opera is amidst a Donizetti Tudor trilogy of its own that Peter Gelb had originally planned to have star Anna Netrebko throughout; Netrebko eventually reckoned it more prudent to commit only to Anna Bolena (seen on cinema screens last fall) thus far. Enduring operaphiles can still recall Beverly Sills taking on all three roles for major New York City Opera revival forty years ago.

Our new Maria Stuarda, originally to have been staged by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, proved only halfway convincing as new role for Houston favorite Joyce di Donato – anticipatory of her repeating the role for this opera’s first showing at the Met next season. Not terribly great theatrical excitement could necessarily have been expected from Caurier and Leiser, but at least probably a better sense of scale, and more elegant set design than we have had from who has come in instead.

Kevin Newbury’s production, with ponderous sets by Neil Patel, and mostly stylish costuming by Jessica Jahn, all making their HGO debuts, proved very ordinary.
While sticking to traditional blocking, and mostly reasonable interaction between cast members, Newbury remained on safe ground. His production also proved short on taking any risks. Statuesque childhood profiling of two queens involved at stage rear during Act One orchestral introduction proved inconclusive. Perhaps the audience needed visual stimulation until time for real action to begin. Such proved additionally insipid for pantomime of Elisabeth during an abridged and choppily performed Inno della morte – often instead haunting choral number three-fourths through Act Three.

Slow descending blocks of set design proved cumbersome - all eventually emulating some perverse obsessing over large objects. Regal emblem gift-wrapped looking block pillars took the cake. Both queens, while adopting a still posture on stage started to look statuesque themselves several times. Having the Elisabetta of Katie van Kooten perched, standing upon high pedestal for her first aria proved stilted, obnoxious. Joyce di Donato descending a plain metal rolled on staircase seemed hardly less clumsy.

Most routiniere however were the musical results for what some of us might have reckoned an important revival here. Maria Stuarda, from near the very beginning, has not had the happiest performance history on record, neither that nor quite a recorded legacy up to what this work deserves. For starters, the orchestral writing reveals Donizetti at his very best at it, composed for orchestra at Naples (though premiered at La Scala) that under Rossini’s eight years there had further established a fine reputation. Seeking out how to emulate the meditative tone of the Schiller tragedy, on which this opera is based, this is the most inward looking of actually Donizetti’s four Tudor queen operas (the other being Il castello di Kenilworth). What love interest gets explored in Maria Stuarda is of limited scope, and not very convincing.

The title role is written in a slightly but noticeably lower tessitura than other Donizetti heroines – as having been written for Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis (though created by Maria Malibran), a famous Donna Anna, Norma and also Rosina (Barbiere) of her day. Imaginatively, the finale (Aria del Supplizio) for Maria, to the opera as well is comprised of two major slow sections, eschewing the brilliance of other aria finales of the era. It has only been fairly recently, outside Italy, that this work and its merits have become more deeply appreciated.

Most notably Janet Baker and now Joyce di Donato have further revealed how tempting the title role, with its slightly atypically low tessitura is for mezzos to sing. Interpolating high notes, even while transposing much material for Maria down alternatively a half and whole step, di Donato managed with ease. Di Donato indeed sounded compelling during her opening aria “O nube che lieve”, taken a half-step down, sung with a lightly inflected mezza voce, including good trills. Its melodic line anticipates “Des quells transports” from Don Carlos for Maria’s friend Elisabeth de Valois and Carlos; both are in D-Flat Major, each in context of prevailing C Major overall And this happens likely to similar psychological effect – of reliance upon some delusion to maintain good peace of mind.

Although similarly floated phrases occurred elsewhere, some awkwardness of approaching Maria as a mezzo became unavoidable – but hardly so for an aging Janet Baker thirty years ago – as emulated by di Donato early on and employing all the very same transpositions down Baker had. Affectation of humility at start of ‘Dialogue’ with Elisabetta Di Donato handled well, as also her rage spilling over during same developing confrontation. Di Donato’s agility for this music is mostly secure; her mastery of other facets of her vocalism though is subject to doubt.

One expects more suppleness for role of Maria Stuarda than for Elisabetta. Di Donato sang Elisabetta in Geneva five years ago - very successfully. Lately though, even with valiant effort to achieve a free and light soprano top, some tonal hardness, stiffness has developed around the break – evident here, plus curiously bland middle register. Pitch accuracy intermittently also became problematic. More audible from di Donato today too are shifts between registers, tendency almost to aspirate phrase openings. With partial attempt to rein in and relax the chest voice, legato also gets compromised.

Vulnerability of this beleaguered queen of did not fully register. Light red dress attire further underlined some lack of nobility during final scene(s). Such qualities seemed more run aground by leaving exposed technical hurdles, encompassing Maria’s florid lines, moreover by a generic countenance and approach to this character together with her music. Ultimately, pathos regarding Maria’s plight did not quite seize the day, perhaps for di Donato being of customary (post-)modern mindset of needing to fit in.

Matching cardboard quality of the sets was the unstable Elisabetta of Katie van Kooten, quite effective an Ellen Orford in recent Peter Grimes here. Van Kooten here however sounded out of her element. For starters, while being incisive with certainly well understood text, her vocal production seldom came across Italianate. Considerable push and strain at achieving spinto tone - agility only mildly compromised - damaged tone quality, from weak low notes, through vinegary tone in-between to shrill top - some squall right beneath. Van Kooten especially sounded heavily miked at the Wortham; the resulting harshly bright metallic effect downstairs verged on ear-splitting. Her highly questionable intonation then seemed irrelevant.

This Elisabetta, all very two-dimensional, came up then very short on noble bearing – hardly then seeming of any real power with which to reckon. Van Kooten managed to restore Elisabetta some composure, warmer legato for several lines starting Act Three – hardly sufficient to make up for much else.

Leicester, musically written well, seldom becomes dramatically effective. In Geneva, opposite a cold, but fully rounded Elisabetta of di Donato, Eric Cutler stood his ground as a musically even, gracious, deferential Leicester - of naturally drier resources than several other tenors. This go-around he opted to wear his heart on his sleeve. Like Stephen Costello (Dallas’s Leicester in 2007) as Percy in the Met’s Anna Bolena recently, Cutler made the very epitome, with much bleating, of a kicked puppy as Leicester. Pleading Third Act duet with Elisabetta became most embarrassing. There were still lines remindful of Geneva, his fine Tamino here four years ago too, but not supplying the prevailing impression this time.

Catherine Martin somewjhat too briefly supplied a warm, steadying presence as Anna. Oren Gradus contrasted well his dark-toned, slightly worn sounding Lord Cecil, while demonstrating fine bearing, with Talbot of Robert Gleadow. Gleadow appeared sympathetic, ingratiating, musically conscientious, with lower register dry, then reticent for filling out some of Talbot’s lines.

For his fourth Donizetti piece here, Patrick Summers conducted. From an authentic practice perspective, also of what bel canto conventions establish, Summers demonstrated some understanding here. However, sense of real aesthetic encompassing such a work, also of especially how Maria Stuarda breaks free of convention, came across only tepid, and therein exists the challenge. Inhibitions his singers encountered were likely partly due to a frequently stiff, unyielding beat. Places to make various forms of accelerando, piu mosso, frequently came across jerky, choppy - not inculcated well into overall flowing line. Fawning over particular lines from di Donato eventually sounded contrived. Grandeur, solemnity implicit to two important Third Act choruses (the Preghiera included) sounded short-changed

Extensive numerous cuts, many of them to repeats, became customary. Clipping of phrasing, rhythms undercut, in addition to extensive cut therein, dramatic stretta finale to Act Two to point of sounding frivolous. Clpping also occurring during highly theatrical dialogue between two queens central to three-part demarcated finale to Act Two made the dramatic apex of Maria Stuarda merely virtual diminution thereof. Similarity to Lucia arises in that similar sextets open both Act Two finales. What desperation and nastiness di Donato and Van Kooten could muster - also generating annoying audience laughter downstairs due to weak buildup to such a big moment – helped rescue this episode.

Much want of grandeur, of rich color and intricacy Donizetti made substantiate such remained to the end, seldom got satiated. Here we had Maria Stuarda made diminutive, auspiciously minimized – upon special occasion of its HGO debut.

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