The stage is dominated by the two queens, sung by South African soprano Elza van den Heever and American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. They so own this bel canto work that male voices come as a welcome balance when Elizabeth’s secretary of state, William Cecil, sung by baritone Joshua Hopkins, or Mary’s adviser and confessor, George Talbot, the impressive bass Matthew Rose, join them on stage. Nor can one ignore Matthew Polenzani, a first-rate Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, beloved by both women in this opera, which is based on a flight of fancy by Friedrich Schiller.
Van den Heever, who sings Elizabeth, was greeted with rave reviews on opening night, and in the film of the production one can see why. It was her Met debut, sharing a stage with DiDonato, a brilliant, much-loved mezzo, but she held her own. Critics mentioned the “earthy tinge” of Van den Heever’s voice, its “penetrating depth and character”, and her ability to turn coloratura passages into “bursts of jealousy and defiance” – a tribute to her acting as well.
In an interview during the single interval, she was described as a “director’s dream”. In the opening scene she strides the stage like a rugby player because the director, David McVicar, said he didn’t want her to walk regally or elegantly. Moreover she didn’t baulk – as many divas would – at being made to look like a refugee from a Tim Burton film, all white face and bright red bow mouth, or at being costumed in some of the most outrageously hideous gowns in opera history. Famously, she shaved off her hair so there would be no “bald cap” line showing beneath the elaborate wigs she would be wearing.
As for DiDonato, there is a reason she is so loved by opera audiences. There has probably not been a mezzo at the Met with a voice as glorious since Leontyne Price many decades ago, and her acting is superb.
The opera is part of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy. Last year the season opened with Anna Bolena, and Roberto Devereux, about Elizabeth I’s vain attempt to save Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, is scheduled for next season. Maria Stuarda deals with the period in between, when the Protestant Elizabeth, afraid her Catholic cousin intends to supplant her on the English throne, has her jailed for nearly two decades and, ultimately, beheaded.
There are two scenes one must not miss: a meeting between the queens in a forest outside Mary’s prison – an encounter which never happened – and the chorus towards the end, as Mary faces execution. The first is dramatic and exciting; and the second is beautiful, and moving.
Maria Stuarda is playing at Ster-Kinekor Cinema Nouveaus and other good theatres intermittently until March 7. Check the Ster-Kinekor website for details.