Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda was once as rare as the flat-footed platypus. Today it is a repertory piece. Any singer worth her salt should love to chew the scenery in the various confrontations in Acts I and II, ending with the famous confrontation between Elizabeth I and Maria, echoing with words which were too much for nineteenth century censors and were banned: “profanato il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!” (“the English throne has been profaned, vile bastard, by your foot!”) It is too much for the “figlia impura di Bolena” (“Boleyn”s impure daughter”) as Maria also calls her, and Elizabeth orders Maria taken away by the guards, eventually signing her death warrant.
Vienna’s Theater an der Wien is currently running a series of performances of this “Tudor” opera with Alexandra Deshorties as Elizabeth and Marlis Petersen as the hapless Queen of the Scots. Norman Reinhardt played the dulcet voiced Roberto, Count of Leicester, who wants to plead Mary’s case with Elizabeth—who has her own feelings for him—and Stefan Cerny was a fine bass Talbot. Tobias Greenhaigh and Natalia Kawalek played the minor roles of Cecil and Anna. The production was by the controversial Christof Loy.
Loy staged the opera on a bare, oval-shaped stage with a blond, wooden wall encircling the oval. Two long rows of black bench seats encircling the oval give spare relief to the light wood. There was no scenery and there were no props. The oval playing surface was sharply raked, and it revolved very slowly so that the high point of the rake was sometimes at the back of the stage, sometimes on the sides and twice faced the audience, making the singers appear high above those sitting in the orchestra level (stalls). This feature, along with effective lighting by Bernd Purkrabek and careful choreographic movement, gave variety and a sense of changing scenes even though there were no sets to change.
(…) An unusual (and positive) aspect to Loy’s production was to make everyone young, and not just the two queens, who seemed to be in their early thirties. All of the courtiers (and this included several extras as well as members of the chorus) seemed to be twenty-something interns in Elizabeth’s court, which made Elizabeth’s jealous rage quite believable. (In addition, Loy added a mute role of the “Queen’s Familiar” (Gieorgij Puchalski) for no apparent reason.) In the first part he directed that there be constant activity and movement: the courtiers (and the principals) paced the stage and constantly interacted like caged animals giving a sense of barely contained tension. I liked it at first; it seemed a good way to avoid stasis in bel canto operas, but eventually it was too much and began to seem affected and self conscious, especially when the courtiers swarmed around Mary like a hive of bees and pawed at her dress (and at her) while she sang “Nella pace del mesto riposo,” the cabaletta to her Act II aria. In the second part, by contrast, there was calm, a deathly calm, among the chorus members and extras, and the principals were allowed to take center stage unhindered by superfluous action. Loy’s acting direction of individuals was brilliant in every way in expressing the emotions which tore them apart. If anything, it seemed too studied at times.
Fortunately, he had some remarkable singing actresses to work with. Marlis Petersen has sung all sorts of roles including Susanna, Violetta, The Merry Widow and contemporary works. I recall her recently as a riveting Lulu in Berg’s opera at the Met. It is a long way from Berg to Donizetti, technique-wise, but Petersen was just as splendid in acting the doomed queen as she was as Berg’s prostitute. Her bel canto technique is solid, although careful; she has recently sung other bel canto roles including Alaide in Bellini’s La straniera. Alexandra Deshorties has also sung a wide number of roles, but with an emphasis recently on bel canto including Norma, Rossini’s Elisabetta and the Donizetti Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. Elisabetta in this opera is not a nice person, and Deshorties (under Loy’s direction) was animalistic in her hate as well as her barely suppressed passion for Leicester. Norman Reinhardt improved as the performance progressed, and floated lovely pianissimos. Among the others, Cerny’s Talbot was particularly good.
It appeared to me that Loy tried to suppress the religious aspect of the drama as much as possible to focus on the personal nature of the confrontation of the queens, which is hard to do given that Talbot is secretly a Catholic priest, that Maria confesses to him and that the taxing end of the opera has its high point in the great prayer “Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera il suono.” Also considering that historically much of the reason for the conflict between Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth had to do with religion.
On the whole, I would say that I had minor problems with Loy’s concept, but not with his direction of the characters, or with the very strong singing. Credit Paolo Arrivabene too, for his powerful, vigorous conducting of the ORF Radio-Symphonie Orchestra, Wien, and the superb Arnold Schoenberg Chorus, led by Erwin Ortner. Arrivabene brought out aspects in this music that I had never heard before. It was fresh and compelling, as was whole performance. The packed house applauded vociferously (Foto oben: Donizettis „Maria Stuarda“ im Theater an der Wien/ Szene/ Foto Monika Rittershaus).
Zingarelli’s Giulietta e Romeo soars in Vienna: On our last evening in Vienna we saw a concert offering of a work new to me—Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli’s take on the Romeo and Juliet story. Zingarelli’s was the earliest of the several operatic versions I have heard—by Vaccai, Bellini, Gounod, Delius and Bernstein. Zingarelli (1752-1837) is mostly unknown today, and if he is known to opera fans at all, it is probably because of his importance as a teacher in Naples in the early years of the nineteenth century; his most important pupil was Vincenzo Bellini, but he also taught Giuseppe Balducci, Michael Costa and Saverio Mercadante among others. Zingarelli wrote around 40 operas, 25 of them extant, many quite successful in their day, but the most important was Giulietta e Romeo. Composed for La Scala in 1796, it set a pattern that both Vaccai and Bellini would follow in their own versions of the story. Originally, it was composed for a castrato Romeo (Girolamo Crescentini), but the tradition of using castrati in opera was already coming to an end, and in the early years of the nineteenth century some of the greatest sopranos of the day made Romeo a pants role, including Maria Malibran and Giuditta Pasta.
There are many versions of this opera since it was revised for performances in various cities. I think we got the one used when the work received its first modern performances at Salzburg’s Whitsun Festival in May, 2016, with several of the singers heard in Salzburg singing again at the Theater an der Wien on January 27, 2018. Chief among them was the wonderful Ann Hallenberg as Giulietta. As in Salzburg, Irini Karaianni sang Mathilde (her first “sherbet” aria, “Parto, sì, ma nel partire” was particularly lovely). Counter-tenor Xavier Sabata, whom we had heard three nights earlier in Handel’s Publio Cornelio Scipione, sang the not so minor role of Gilberto. He was suffering from a cold (as announced from the stage), but sang anyway, and reaped the audience’s thanks, although the lower ranges were obviously affected. Tenor Daniel Behle was very good as Giulietta’s father Everardo. (The father, as in many Rossini serious operas, is a tenor in this work, and he has two arias which sound like the tenor-father arias which Rossini will write in Tancredi and other works.) The central role of Romeo was supposed to have been sung by Max Emanuel Cencic as in Salzburg, but it was announced a couple of days in advance that this role would be substituted by Yuriy Mynenko, the Ukranian counter-tenor whom we had heard a few nights earlier in the role of Scipione in Handel’s opera. Romeo’s music is the most difficult in the opera, and Mynenko sailed through it without any sign of having stepped in at the last minute. His voice is big and beautifully toned, and he showed that his technique was equal to almost any of the ornate music which composers liked to give to star castrati. It is hard to imagine that Cencic would have been better.
Once again we had the Armonia Athena ensemble from Greece aided by the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus. George Petrou conducted from the harpsichord. This is a delicate work, and it seemed to me that Petrou lovingly brought out the nuances in the music. For me, it was most interesting to see how this important opera bridges the gap from the eighteenth century of Cimarosa and Paisiello to the serious operas of Rossini and other bel canto composers, and particularly how the libretto of the often-derided Foppa sets a template for so many masterpieces to come in the primo ottocento. Hearing it, even in concert, filled in a gap in my knowledge, and more important it was a thoroughly successful performance. The capacity audience was most appreciative. There is no recording of this opera (yet), but for anyone who is interested the entire Salzburg performance is accessible on Youtube. Charles Jernigan