Farcical aquatic ceremonies: La donna del lago at the ROH


According to the Royal Opera House’s new production of Rossini’s La donna del lago, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. But while the production’s vague juxtaposition of barbaric highlanders and European-style courtiers doesn’t really work, there’s a lot of exciting singing, Joyce DiDonato as the titular aquatic lass, and Juan Diego Florez in a kilt.
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Maria Stuarda loses her head on the eve of 2013

“I had a dream my gala would be/So different from this pilgrim dress I’m wearing…”

One of the less-noted trends of the Peter Gelb era has been the renaissance of bel canto (and bel canto-adjacent) opera at the Met. So far we have had new productions of Anna Bolena, L’elisir d’amore, La fille du régiment, Lucia di Lammermoor, La sonnambula, Armida, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Le Comte Ory (as well as Don Pasquale just before Gelb’s regime began). To this list you can now add Maria Stuarda, the middle installment of a Donizetti “Queens” trilogy directed by David McVicar. (This began with Bolena last season, the final entry will be Roberto Devereux, reportedly featuring Sondra Radvonovsky next season.)

I think bel canto has proven compatible with two of Gelb’s artistic priorities: star casting and slick but literal-minded storytelling (the latter often in the guise of “accessibility”). Most of these productions have been sold on the fame of their casts. Many of the operas themselves have colorful settings and no obvious complicating social or metaphysical angles (Mary Zimmerman’s high-concept Sonnambula was an exception in this regard). They are primarily showpieces. But for this rep to be anything more than routine and mundane you need real star quality singing and charisma. Unfortunately only a few of these productions have found the people capable of that.

Maria Stuarda is OK, but there’s still a certain fire missing.

Donizetti, Maria Stuarda. Metropolitan Opera, 12/31/2012. New production premiere directed by David McVicar with sets and costumes by John Macfarlane, lights by Jennifer Tipton, and choreography by Leah Hausman, conducted by Maurizio Benini with Joyce DiDonato (Maria Stuarda), Elza van den Heever (Elisabetta), Matthew Rose (Talbot), Joshua Hopkins (Cecil), Maria Zifchak (Anna).

I guess you have to give David McVicar some credit. Unlike quite a few Met directors, he definitely knows what he is doing and rarely produces the giant “WTF?” moments many other recent stagings have induced. But he hasn’t been very inspired recently, either, and this production is no exception.

McVicar’s Maria Stuarda production is more colorful and flashy than last year’s Anna Bolena, but otherwise similar. The costumes are exaggerated period with some tweaks of design and color, the sets minimal and austere. (Both are designed by John Macfarlane.) We open with a big old party, a convenient place for McVicar to stick his compulsory acrobats. But almost everyone is wearing pure white, which cuts down on the bacchanalia factor.

The rest of the evening is less busy, with about one striking thing per scene while the rest is by the book. Queen E wears a wide red skirt that opens like curtains to reveal pants (performing masculinity oh so subtly) while her rival Maria Stuarda (Mary Queen of Scots) and her cohort dress in plain black. There are a few strong images: the tiny windows of Mary’s prison, the backdrop filling with the orders she wrote when she was queen, and her sad end, in which she reveals a red dress for her final ascent to a giant executioner. (This executioner is, by the way, fully clothed–where is the McVicar of yore?)

McVicar and the cast create a stark contrast between serious, gracious, and feminine Maria and cranky, assertive Elizabeth, the latter adopting a lurching gait and little royal dignity. (I don’t remember the opera’s Schiller source, which I saw in an excellent Donmar Warehouse production a few years ago, as nearly this unsubtle.) Maria is meant to excite the most sympathy, but is shorted on exposition and backstory, and in this production rarely appears more than mildly perturbed. Elisabetta is a far more interesting character, and here developed much more vividly. She has a country to run and alliances to make. Who really cares for this plain imprisoned lady who only occasionally works up a decent curse?

The production is, as a backdrop, perfectly OK. It would be fine as a frame for brilliant and passionate performances. Unfortunately we didn’t really get those and it remains kind of weak sauce. Both ladies are miscast and neither projected on the grand scale required.

This was conceived as a vehicle for Joyce DiDonato. While the role of Maria Stuarda is usually sung by a soprano, some transposition makes it workable for her mezzo. There’s a long history of this kind of transposition, I don’t object (though in the final scene having a true soprano floating above is more effective), but DiDonato just doesn’t seem right even when it has been lowered. While she sings the notes with exemplary musicality, expression, and taste, her sound is more thin than plush, which in this kind of thing is a problem. Under pressure her tone acquires a pronounced bleaty vibrato, at soft dynamics the vibrato disappears entirely. And her intonation is (or was in this performance, at least) highly problematic, tending flat towards the ends of phrases and in cadenzas wavering all over the place. Sometimes she caught it and corrected but I found it a constant distraction preventing me from ever becoming immersed in her performance.

I wasn’t terribly convinced by her acting, either, which seemed too mild to play up to me in the Family Circle. A few big moments–that curse–were staged as Dramatic Actions, but then her voice didn’t really back her up. Maybe it was more convincing closer up, but she never convinced me of her star-ness. I’m sorry to pile on but these are pretty serious issues for a major singer in a new production.

Elza van den Heever gives a striking performance as Elisabetta, with a variety of impressive costumes, but her hip-swaying is more Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth than it is Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth. I did appreciate her spirit, though, and she takes far greater dramatic risks than DiDonato appears to. Her voice lacks the sheer tonal beauty and evenness between registers to be ideal for this repertoire, and has a very prominent vibrato. But it’s certainly an interesting and compelling instrument, very powerful at the top and well-controlled (impressive coloratura for such a large voice), and it will be interesting to see how she develops (possibly in a Wagner-Strauss sort of direction?).

Matthew Polenzani is better as Leicester than he was as Nemorino in the fall. He is vocally impeccable, with a far wider tonal palette than either of the ladies, and the voice is just the right size. The older, more established Leicester is a better fit for his personality and age than goofy young Nemorino was. But the role is basically standard tenor posturing, and he never really got a big star moment. The supporting cast was competent but bland, with none sticking very strongly in my memory. The chorus, though, was fabulous, and made the music sound far better than it deserves to (bel canto choruses are, I must admit, a pet peeve of mine–so boring!), and Maurizio Benini’s conducting seemed perfectly fine to me, certainly better than his work in Elisir.

But there’s nothing here that holds a candle to Anna Netrebko in Anna Bolena. I’m sure it will satisfy Joyce DiDonato fans, because there is indeed a lot of Joyce DiDonato, but to me it was rarely more than middling. Since bel canto is not really my preferred variety of opera, my standards for enjoyment may be unduly high, but this one didn’t draw me in.

Maria Stuarda runs through January, with the inevitable HD broadcast on January 19.

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Cenerentola and the incredible Americanness of Joyce DiDonato

Nice People Win
Last Monday
I went to Cenerentola at the
Bayerische Staatsoper. I’m sorry I didn’t write about it faster but lots of
work and this fast-track six day Ring
have limited my blogging time. (I expect the shorter operas of this week as well as the imminent departure of my drinking buddy will make keeping up easier soon.)  Also I had
one of those crappy limited-view seats of which this opera house has so many, and I missed a
lot of the action. So here are some brief thoughts on what I heard and managed
to see.

Rossini, La Cenerentola. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/9/2012.
 Musikalische Leitung Antonello Allemandi
Inszenierung Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Bühne und Kostüme Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Don Ramiro Lawrence Brownlee
Dandini Nikolay Borchev
Don Magnifico Alessandro Corbelli
Clorinda Eri Nakamura
Tisbe Paola Gardina
Cenerentola Joyce DiDonato
Alidoro Alex Esposito

Ponnelle’s production has classic status here. It’s a storybook style with highly
choreographed action and giant costumes befitting the opera’s bouncy,
repetitive music as well as its over-the-top villains and manic action. This is the
treatment this opera almost always receives, but this production is old enough
it may have been what others copied. (Personally I love Achim Freyer’s production–which is similar except for the whole Achim Freyer part.) It’s charming enough, and from what I
could see of it this revival was neatly directed and the physical production is
in good shape.  In exchange for getting to see so many big-name casts in such a short period of time at these Festival performances one must be prepared for a degree of sloppiness, but this cast did a full run in May and most of the rehearsal
seemed to stick. The orchestra showed signs of underrehearsal, but nothing too dire. One clarinet had a little
too much squawky fun in the overture. Antonello Allemandi (a wonderful surname for an Italian conducting in Germany) led ably with appropriate zippiness.

The big draw
was Joyce DiDonato in the title role. She is possibly the most quintessentially
American of major opera singers. She has a bright, modern, and very relateable presence onstage; she could be that outrageously successful friend of whom you would be very jealous if she weren’t just so darn nice and
unconceited. DiDonato’s vocal success is a triumph of effort, of polished
technique and preparation. It’s not that the kind of virtuoso coloratura she
sings necessarily requires more technique than any other kind of singing. But when you’re singing all those quick runs. the technique is in the foreground to an unusual extent. Presence plus technique plus looks, she’s one of
those singers the media would call a “complete package.” But there’s something
missing: a distinctive and attractive basic sound. When not singing fast notes,
her voice sounded tense, fluttery and in higher registers screechy, or at least
that was the case on Monday night. What strikes you is not her sound but her mastery of the notes.

and hard work are the most American of virtues, mystery is not. Sometimes
incredible voices emanate from disconcertingly ordinary people, other times the people onstage seem not quite human, otherworldly, possessed. DiDonato contains
no such surprises, she just does what she should in an exceptionally gracious
and accomplished fashion. Cenerentola is the perfect role for her because it makes her play, more or less, her offstage persona: it’s
about a normal person who is rewarded for being nice and hard-working. Isn’t it
sweet to see someone so deserving get her prince and attendant big poofy dress? To be honest I would
prefer to see something whose result I didn’t already know. That Joyce DiDonato as Joyce DiDonato will get a happy ending is pre-ordained.
Her Prince was Lawrence Brownlee, who I first saw sing this role in Philadelphia in 2006 or so. He
sounded fabulous then and sounds even better now, and picked up a lot of confidence and flair in the intervening years too. For some reason I find him
more genuinely charming onstage than DiDonato, perhaps because he didn’t seem so pre-plannned in every particular. In the rest of the cast, Alessandro
Corbelli has the perfect personality for Don Magnifico but, based on this and
his recent Dulcamara, his voice has exited stage right while he remains on the boards.
He was often unaudible and speaking through the patter.  The rest were better, particularly Alex
Esposito’s resonate Alidoro. Nikolay Borchev was sometimes blustery as Dandini
but warmed up well. (Doesn’t this opera seem to feature one more low male voice than it
should?) As the sisters, Eri Nakamura and Paola Giardina camped it up, with
Giardina in particular having some genuinely funny moments.
As a Festspiele
performance, this was perfectly as advertised.

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl.

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