Thursday night I got to the Thalia for a presentation of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, a performance taped live at La Scala. I've missed this series so far, and can report a most rewarding viewing experience.
Maria Stuarda so horrified the pious Queen of Naples at the dress rehearsal in 1835 (her ancestor, Mary Queen of Scots, calling another queen "bastarda" seems to have done it) that she fainted dead away, and the opera was cancelled. Word of this reached the great diva Maria Malibran, who demanded that the work be staged for her, first at La Scala in Milan, then in Turin (the Queen of Naples' home town) - one performance in each city was enough to arouse the wrath of the censors. The opera was not performed again until 1955 - although the Schiller play from which it is derived has long been a classic and a constant of the German stage.
Its rediscovery in modern times immediately made it a repertory piece for a reason dear to the heart of impresarios and audiences everywhere: Dueling divas! Think Johnny Guitar in Italian, with cabalettas. My first Stuarda - it was, in fact, my first Donizetti opera - was a legendary performance at Carnegie Hall with Monsterrat Caballe as Mary and Shirley Verrett as Elizabeth. (They also performed it together all over Europe.) Verrett entered in a dark green silk sheath, low cut over her magnificent figure, displaying her chocolate brown skin, her black hair piled high - the most regal thing I'd ever seen in my life - as is still true. "Queenly" doesn't do her justice. (Though her hair is now white, she is still a beauty.) The contrast with Caballe, short, dumpy, in black as always (when not in costume), could hardly have been greater. And at the end of Act II, when Elizabeth pushes Mary to explode in her face, "figlia impura de Bolena," "vil bastarda" and all, it was clear that the two ladies and Donizetti had all Carnegie on the edge of its seats, steam coming out of our ears, and the ladies couldn't resist a little grin of "we-got-'em-going-now!" complicity to each other. Not historically correct! But such fun.
I've seen the opera several times subsequently - Beverly Sills at NYCO (who was her Elizabeth? Stapp? Marsee?), Sutherland at the Philadelphia Opera (with Huguette Tourangeau), and at the opera houses of Mannheim and Basel. The work has never been presented at the Metropolitan Opera - Bing didn't trust bel canto (while it was sweeping the rest of the operatic world). And my experience has taught me, first: don't cut the prayer in the final scene, the work's musical high point, and don't get a second rater for either queen - the opera only works if you have two top talents there. No one gives a damn about the men (on the Scala broadcast they were notably mediocre), and the production can be any old thing, but you need dueling divas, and women who know, really know bel canto style, to pull the thing off. Then you can rely on Donizetti, a stage craftsman to his fingertips: the machine will work!
This performance starred Mariella Devia, a singer the Met has never taken to its heart, who is crowding sixty and still singing all over Europe. Her antagonist (if you will) was Anna Caterina Antonacci. Neither lady looked good in closeup or the weird costumes of the production. But who cares? We came for bel canto. Antonacci was a striking figure and the seething anger underneath her roulades was everywhere in evidence. The great climax (in Schiller's and Donizetti's Act II, though it is rare to have an intermission there now) is Elizabeth's decision, motivated in part by jealousy of Leicester, her favorite, who has been flirting with Mary, partly by rage at the plots of Mary's supporters to seize her throne, partly by Cecil's muttering hostility to the Scottish queen, and partly by womanly curiosity, to make her first visit to her cousin and prisoner. As everyone knows, the two ladies never met in life - Elizabeth took good care of that. (Mary was famously charming, and desperately sought the encounter.) Most people also know that Elizabeth was reluctant to execute her cousin as it set such a bad precedent to put a monarch to death, and that (after 20 years) she finally permitted it for solely political reasons. But theater and opera (and film) versions of history always have sex as the reason for everything.
So: it's Act II, our prima donna has already sung a double aria (necessary on a first entrance into the opera) to show us what sort of woman she is - and what exquisite, delicate, fluttering ornaments Devia introduced to it, unobtrusive, born of character and situation just as they should be. Then in comes Leicester, followed by - the Queen! The setup is so operatic, it seems hard to believe Schiller's drama was not written for musical setting. The characters, one after another, examine their internal feelings - and we hear it all! Tension mounts. (Take that, Mary Zimmerman.) Then Elizabeth (suppressing her nervousness and keeping an eye on Leicester's reactions) taunts Mary, abased but proud. Her refusal to grovel arouses Elizabeth's fury - and she goes too far. This is very Ancient Greek tragedy: the figure in authority who abuses it, commits hubris. Whereupon Mary, supposedly powerless and defeated, her life at stake, springs to action, breathing fire, hurls insults in the face of a reigning queen (no wonder the censors had fits), concluding with obscenity: "It is a disgrace that the throne of England should be occupied by a - bastard!" The excitement here is that the downtrodden woman has turned out to have power after all, a moral force before which Elizabeth quails and is defeated - her only way to snatch victory is by brute force, to condemn her rival to death - which after a stretta that should bring any audience to its feet, she does. The curtain falls.
You can see this scene played magnificently on youtube by Caballe and Bianca Berini. Berini was a little-heralded much-loved singer of the grand old Italian style, and when she sang, everything was on the line; she never gave a less than thrilling performance, and her Elizabeth is superb, arrogant, horrified. Caballe is not at her best expressing rage, but she pulled it off now and then.
Act III shows us Elizabeth's hesitations over signing the death warrant, and her misery at finally being driven to it - but she does it. The next scene is a major tour de force for singing actress (it was Sills's high point), when she confesses to the murder of her second husband and is absolved by a disguised priest. The high point of the final scene is the great prayer (often omitted by idiot impresarios or exhausted sopranos) sung by Mary and the chorus, where she holds a soft note for the entire recap of the melody by the chorus, and then rises in arpeggio before she can take a breath at last. If you CAN do it, you're a Maria Stuarda; if you can't, maybe you shouldn't sing this part. Caballe, Gencer, Sutherland could all do it. But who today?
This was Devia's coronation: nearing sixty, and having sung for two hours straight, she was not only capable of these endless phrases, but her voice maintained a glorious sweetness all through, reminding us that bel canto does not mean wrestle the music to the ground; it means beautiful singing. Devia sang Donizetti in this performance as no woman has sung it in New York in twenty years - and showed up the fakery, the gimcrackery of Fleming, Gheorghiu, Dessay, Massis, Futral, and the lovely but bland essays of Swenson for what they are. It was a golden age performance.
Aside from the two ladies, there was nothing to notice here. But in this opera, that's all you need: two game girls. Whatever Happened to Baby Liz? You won't believe the answer!