Thursday, 10 July 2014

Bel canto isn't realism - Maria Stuarda Royal Opera House

We are in a golden age of voice.  Joyce DiDonato creates an astonishing Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the Royal Opera House, which will define the role for decades to come. Her range is breathtaking and  her technique is flawless. We will never know how Maria Malibran sounded when she premiered the role, but there's almost no way that Malibran, however good she might have been, would have had at the age of 25 the polish and depth DiDonato brings to the role. So much for the idea that the past is always better. In Joyce DiDonato we have a wonder we should treasure.

"Bel canto isn't realism", someone once said to me. No-one speaks with florid melismas and repeated trills. Bel canto is extreme singing, the triumph of art over naturalism.  When we hear DiDonato's voice soaring, surfing over wave after wave of swelling sound, we - or at least I am - transported to a rarifed realm of hyper-idealism, unsullied by literal pettiness. Maria Stuarda isn't about the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1567. The story isn't  history but creatively re-imagined by Friedrich Schiller into a masterpiece in which an individual triumphs over repression.  Donizetti adds more new angles to the story, such as the love affair between Mary and Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to spice up the drama. 

Elizabeth and her apparatchiks cut Mary's head off but her spirit triumphs. When Joyce DiDonato sings in her final scene, her voice trembles, expressing fear, as if we can hear her heart palpitate. Shorn of her hair, and in her under-robe, she looks painfully vulnerable. Yet that voice releases such firmness and such assurance that we know that Mary has entered into a far finer world than that of the grubby trolls who brought her down. DiDonato seems lit from within, transforming the glare of the execution room into transcendent light.  Although Schiller and Donizetti weren't admirers of the misuse of religion, their Mary, through Joyce DiDonato, reaches apotheosis. The crowd outside, lit in Marian blue, sing quietly, like pilgrims.They've witnessed the triumph of an individual whose inner nobility has set her free. Maria Stuarda is kin to Leonore, but even more powerful and symbolic..The curtain drops, suddenly, like a sword. Snap! the drama ends, so abruptly that it is, and should be, unsettling. Blood and a severed head would be banal, a complete misreading of the ideas in the play and in the opera.

It defies basic common sense that this production should have warranted booing, a churlish and bigoted form of abuse. So we don't behead people these days? Of course we do, in different ways. The directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, are extremely experienced,  and know their music better than most who malign them. Any really good opera inspires new perspectives. If we genuinely care about an opera, or a composer, we seek fresh perspectives. It is irrelevant whether a production is modern or non-modern, as long as it presents the work well. In the case of Maria Stuarda, the very term "traditional" is meaningless, since the opera was unstaged for decades, only entering the repertoire some 40 years ago  It by-passed the whole era of verismo and late 19th century excess. This staging, with its clean lines, focuses full attention on the singers, which is as things should be, especially in bel canto..It's designed with intelligence, illustrating ideas in the opera without overwhelming it with unnecessary detail. If the singers shine, it's partly because they and the directors have worked things through thoroughly, in unison. In any case, the Personregie  in this production is exceptionally fine, given that there are so few parts that there's no room for error. As Joyce DiDonato tweeted:  "People need to understand that great performances are aided by great direction". Pay attention. The lady knows what she's talking about.

The First Act opens in the Palace of Westminster, not "The Houses of Parliament" as such,  Monarchs lived in Westminster Palace before Buckingham Palace and Windsor were completed. In any case Westminster was, and is, the seat of power. It's a symbol of authority. Anyone who has ever been inside, seeing how it operates will recognize the trappings of grandeur - panelling as ornate inside as the facades outside. Wood absorbs sound: the corridors of power are hushed, as oblique as the machinations of the factotums who operate within, the "men in suits" (later seen in long cloaks, like their 16th century counterparts) who pull the strings.  Elisabetta (Carmen Giannattasio) is Queen, but she is a prisoner, too, of sorts, in a system of intrigue and ambition. When she lets her feelings slip, she becomes vulnerable. Just as the crowd outside the palace has to be held back by guard rails, Elisabetta has to keep her feelings under strict control. That's why she cannot show mercy or let Maria's emotional outburst go unpunished. Donizetti's music, with its bright, sharp contrasts, suggests the tension that underlines most of the opera.  The golden burnished tones of Westminster and in the music belie the harsh fact that in this opera, everyone is on a razor edge.

Fotheringay Castle was a border fortress, infinitely less luxurious than Westminster.  For Maria, it was a prison from which she had almost no hope of escape. Towering walls, repressed "cells", corridors, colours of marble and hard granite. When DiDonato sings of the meadows outside, her voice takes on a gloriously lyrical sheen. It's as if by sheer vocal power she can magic in flowers, freedom and femininity. Of course, dour cynics would say, you can't bring a meadow into a prison, but Donizetti knew better. In Maria's imagination anything's possible, and DiDonato's singing makes dreams come true.

When DiDdonato and Giannattasio have their confrontation, Donizetti's music crackles with violent intensity. Maria is letting her emotions out, something which the repressed Elisabetta can never do. Frantic dotted rhythms,  voices trilling and counter-trilling, rapid-fire tempi. DiDonato wins. It's in the score, but Giannattasio gives a good fight, her voice glinting like metal.  Ideally I would have preferred a conductor more versed in period style, but Bertrand de Billy is always reliable.

Exceptional singing as one would expect in this genre where precision and fluidity are so important. Giorgio Talbot is a killer role for a bass, stretching the range cruelly upwards, demanding an agility many basses can't negotiate without compromising the long resonant lines they do more naturally.  Matthew Rose achieved all Talbot's challenges and more, infusing his singing with  emotional conviction.  He creates a Talbot with singular and convincing personality. This is perhaps the finest moment in his career so far (and basses go on singing forever).

Ismael Jordi made his Royal Opera House debut as Roberto, Conte di Leicester, substituting at late notice. As soon as he began to sing,  it was immediately apparent that Jordi has great potential. His voice has a distinct timbre, which combines brightness with mature, expressive  depth. Jordi is also strong enough in terms of personality that he's convincing as the lover of a character as overwhelming as DiDonato's Maria. Let's hope we hear him again in London, soon. Jeremy Carpenter sang a good, solid Guglielmo Cecil, Kathleen Williamson sang Anna Kennedy, Maria's maid and Peter Dineen played the executioner. Altogether an extremely important production, not just for the singing but for the way the staging integrates with the plot and enhances the inherent non-naturalistic beauty of the voices. It also highlights the stupidity of the "anti-modern" Taliban. This staging is a lot closer to bel canto ideals than the booers realize.

photos : Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House


leonora said...

Well said! I liked the production too, I attempted to remonstrate with one of the booers, but to no avail. Just one thing - in Schiller there is greater emphasis on Leicester's double-dealing, he is shown as a complete bastard - so much so that one wonders what either of the Queens sees in him!

Doundou Tchil said...

Thanks Jane ! Schiller's more into the politic s, and Donizetti into the romance. That's why the opera is confusing to those who keep thinking it';s "history".