WNO’s Maria Stuarda Fails to Communicate Spirit of Tudor England

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September 18, 2013
From Seen and Heard International By: Glyn Pursglove

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Donizetti, Maria Stuarda (Production Premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Operas, Graeme Jenkins (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 13.9.2013 (GPu)

Welsh National Opera has extensively publicised its current season of Donizetti operas – Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux – under the banner of ‘The Tudors’. It has even commissioned a special “new digital experience” (a glorified questionnaire) under the title “I am Tudor, Are You” which can be ‘experienced online [http://www.iamtudor.co.uk/].
Unfortunately what has emerged with great clarity after the first two instalments of this ‘trilogy’ is that these are actually productions which are not interested in these as ‘Tudor’ operas, not interested, that is, in the historical contexts of the stories they tell. Donizetti and his librettists were not, of course, historians, and were altogether untroubled by any remotely pedantic need for historical accuracy or verisimilitude. Yet the works they produced demonstrated a fair understanding of the spirit (as opposed to the mere ‘facts’) of the history they were (re)creating. They understood, for example, the importance of the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism in the history of Tudor England, a conflict which explicitly (and implicitly) underlies so much in these operas. They understood a good deal about the way in which the interplay of political situation and personal desire was central to the events which make up the period’s historical narrative. The operas (both musically and textually) have a sense (whether it is, or should be the same sense in all three of them is debatable) of self-consistent social world with a coherent sense of values) even if many of those values are fiercely contested (as they are in all but a few rare societies and historical moments).
In setting the first two of these operas (and one suspects the same will be true of Roberto Devereux) in an effectively timeless ahistorical world – in the use of costumes which don’t belong fully to any specific time and place (let alone Tudor England), in the use of sparse, black-box sets almost wholly lacking in historically specific detail, in allowing the social and moral mores of quite different historical periods to co-exist – and by not engaging seriously with such relevant historical issues as religious conflict – these productions have robbed Donizetti’s operas of one of their necessary dimensions. Donizetti and his librettists may have created a Romantic view of the Tudors, but at least it was a view of the Tudors, even if wasn’t (naturally) that of modern historians. WNO’s directors of this trilogy don’t seem to have a view of the Tudors, don’t, pace the company’s publicity, really see the operas as ‘about’ the Tudors. Some operas (those of Wagner come to mind) do, of course, present narratives so archetypal that ‘timeless’ productions can (sometimes) work very well. But these Donizettian works are too historically grounded (for all the freedoms they take with historical ‘fact’), are too culturally specific that they struggle to survive such treatment. Which is a shame, given that they are fine works (once one has adjusted to the conventions of their era) and that both of the first two productions have been of a generally high standard musically. There is, though, an uncomfortable divorce between the musical performances and the ethos of the productions. This was particularly true of Rudolf Frey’s reading of Maria Stuarda.
Not content with the historical improbabilities and implausibilities intrinsic to Giuseppe Bardari’s libretto, Frey piles on more and more egregious ones, taking us further and further away from any sense that this is a ‘Tudor’ opera. He gives us a Mary Queen of Scots who treats confession as an opportunity for fetishistic sexual play (and that just before her execution) and who, for her execution, dons a kind of stiff moulded bodice, full-breasted and heavily nippled. In Bardini’s libretto Leicester is among those who lament Mary as she walks to the scaffold, joining Talbot, Anna and Mary’s household in insisting that she is “innocente, infamata”. In Frey’s production he commits suicide, shooting himself with a wholly silent pistol. Perhaps Frey was influenced in the use of the pistol by having seen two of Leicester’s portraits in which had himself painted with wheel-lock guns and perhaps even by the knowledge that in the mid 1580s Leicester bought a number of pistols (the late sixteenth-century fascination with, and fear of, pistols, is the subject of Lisa Jardine’s fine study, The Awful End of Prince William the Silent, 2005). However the historical Leicester died at his country house in Oxfordshire in September 1588, the year after the execution of Mary, following a bout of malarial fever. Given the sixteenth-century view of suicide as the greatest of sins, the casualness of Leicester’s onstage act was utterly ‘non-Tudor’.
In amongst – above, one might say – the dreary nonsense of the production, there was some fine music to be heard. As Elizabetta, Adina Nitescu sang with power and authority, though somewhat unvaried in tone and sometimes decidedly strident at the top of her range. Judith Howarth was in splendid vocal form as Maria, emotionally expressive, simultaneously strong and vulnerable, able to deploy a wide vocal range and some brilliant coloratura. In the final scenes of the opera Howarth transcended the vulgarity which characterised much of the staging and realised Bardari and Donizetti’s conception of a Mary relatively serene and purged, able to approach death freed of the jealousy and desire for revenge which has evidently motivated her earlier. Howarth’s was probably the stand out performance in the cast, but no one let the side down. Bruce Sledge sang Leicester (‘Roberto’) with a balance of lyricism and power that at times made the role seem like a prototype of more than one Puccini hero! Gary Griffiths sang securely and created a plausibly menacing Cecil – it wasn’t hard to believe that this was the man who encouraged the creation of Sir Francis Walsingham’s highly efficient network of spies and did much to sustain it. Alastair Miles seemed much more comfortable as Talbot than he had as Henry VIII in Anna Bolena; he made of Talbot (Earl of Shrewsbury) a genuinely sympathetic figure capable of real human warmth and painfully torn between conflicting loyalties. Bardari’s deployment of the layman Talbot as confessor to Mary may not make theological sense but contains within a shrewd historic perception. As the outstanding modern biographer of Mary, John Guy writes of Talbot, “he was a Protestant but only just, and knew better than anyone the sort of contradictions involved in dealing with Mary”. The real Talbot was Mary’s custodian for fifteen years. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones acquitted herself well in the relatively unrewarding role of Anna Kennedy (a character who seems effectively to have been the invention of Schiller in his tragedy Maria Stuart of 1800). In the duet between Mary and Anna which opens Act II Afonwy-Jones sang affectingly and intelligently.
The work of the chorus and the orchestra gave no significant reason for complaint (save a few brief moments of inexact ensemble in the orchestra) and many more reasons to praise. The orchestral score of Maria Stuarda is particularly fine, quicksilver in its delineation of emotion and emotional change, colourful in its support of the soloists, and under the direction of Graeme Jenkins we were treated to an impressive reading of the score. Indeed, as I have suggested, musically there was very little to cause unease and much to relish. The problems lay elsewhere.

Cast
Elizabetta – Adina Nitescu
Maria Stuarda – Judith Howarth
Roberto – Bruce Sledge
Giorgio Talbot– Alastair Miles
Guglielmo Cecil – Gary Griffiths
Anna (Hannah) Kennedy – Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Production
Conductor – Graeme Jenkins
Director – Rudolf Frey
Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris
Musical Preparation – Stephen Wood
Language Coach – Isabella Radcliffe
Stage Manager – Katie Heath-Jones
Production Manager – Robert Pagett

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Farnocchia and Goeldner Star in Opening to WNO’s Donizetti Trilogy

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September 10, 2013
From Seen and Heard International By:Glyn Pursglove

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Donizetti, Anna Bolena (Production Premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera Daniele Rustoni, conductor, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 7.9.2013 (GPu)

Our Jacobean dramatists frequently set their bloodiest and darkest tragedies in Italy – plays such as Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi or Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Italy being exotically dangerous and Catholic – so there is a nice historical and cultural irony in the fact that for an Italian romantic composer such as Donizetti, English history (England being exotically dangerous and Protestant) provided an appropriate setting for works of similar blood and darkness, a fashion in part encouraged by the Europe-wide popularity of Walter Scott’s fiction.
I know of no reason to imagine that Donizetti himself, or anyone else, imagined he was writing the fisrt work in a Tudor trilogy when he composed Anna Bolena in 1830. Maria Stuarda didn’t follow until 1834 and Roberto Devereux in 1837. Three different librettists were used in the three operas and, Donizetti being notoriously prolific, some twenty-one other operas were composed between Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux – the Tudors were hardly dominating Donizetti’s imagination to the exclusion of other things! Yet WNO’s idea of presenting these three operas as a trilogy, thus forming the spine of their Autumn season, has much to be said for it, even if the existence of such a ‘trilogy’ is hardly a fact of operatic history. Much of what the three operas share is the stuff of most of Donizetti’s contributions to opera seria: conflicted and extreme passions, love thwarted or distorted, the counterpoint of lust and love, the exploitation of love for political ends – what Catherine Clément called “la défaite des femmes” in the title of her influential book of 1979, L’Opéra ou la Défaite des femmes: female rivalry, tyrannical rulers, the corruptions of court life and so on. But these three operas also have a certain continuity of a sort absent elsewhere in Donizetti’s enormous output – Elizabeth I appears as a character in both Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux and, in this production of Anna Bolena, if not in Felice Romani’s libretto, she puts in brief appearances, as a babe in arms, at the beginning and the end. The plot of Anna Bolena is echoed, with some gender reversals, in Roberto Devereux. Further judgements as to how far these opera really constitute a trilogy must await the two productions to come.
Alessandro Talevi’s production is set within a black box on three walls of which skeletal animal skulls, well-antlered, hang as hunting trophies and function both as memento mori and as reminders of the hunting and entrapment so central to the events of the opera. Lighting is dim, costumes are almost unrelievedly black. The mood, and the sense of confinement within an ominous destiny, could hardly be clearer. In common with more than a few bel canto operas Anna Bolena isn’t rich in implicit action; the crafting of the libretto, that is to say, both in terms of the design of individual scenes and the wording of the sung text, rarely demands a specific physical realisation. The tendency is towards on-stage stasis, a tendency which a modern director will inevitably want to fight against. Talevi overdoes the use of the revolving stage and there are moments when anonymous figures not directly involved in the emotional situation march with unknown purpose (and somewhat distractingly) across the stage. But at several key moments Talevi isn’t afraid to accept the lack of busy movement and let the music sing out for itself. And what splendid music much of it is, music which was, on the whole, very well served by singers and orchestra. From the opening moments of Donizetti’s kaleidoscopic overture, flickering from the hectic to the tender, the stormy to the calm, it was clear that Daniele Rustoni was entirely at home with Donizettian idiom, and the orchestral work was crisp and supportive throughout.
I was impressed by Serena Farnocchia when I heard her on a recording of Rossini’s Stabat Mater with Asher Fisch and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (Helicon HEL029661), but this was the first time I had heard her live. She proved a commanding stage presence and sang with precise expressive force throughout. In Act I her powerful but controlled interpretation of ‘Io seniti sulla mia mano’ was beautifully shot through with growing awareness of the contradictions of her situation; Later she was both vocally brilliant and deeply moving in the Act II mad scene. But the best things in the opera are not solo arias but explorations of relationships, above all that of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour (Anna Bolena and Giovanna Seymour as they are in Felice Romani’s libretto). Their long scene together in Act II, is the most intense episode in the opera (and it is constructed somewhat episodically) and Farnocchia and Katharine Goeldner did full justice to it – their ‘dialogue’ perfectly paced and climaxed, their two voices, Goeldner’s a little fuller and more tonally various than Farnocchia’s purer soprano, combining and counterpointing perfectly. As the musician Smeton (historically Mark Smeaton) Faith Sherman acquitted herself well in a difficult ‘trouser’ role. ‘Come innocente, giovane’ was sung with lyrical grace in Act I and throughout she communicates Smeton’s naivety, so dangerous to himself and to others.
The men in the cast are, on balance, less persuasive. Alastair Miles’ Henry VIII (Enrico) is dramatically most convincing when most baffled by things beyond his comprehension, such as love and loyalty. At moments, but not consistently, he achieves the necessary menace, but he didn’t really seem to be acting with his voice and the characterisation failed to convince completely. Nor was he entirely comfortable with demands of Donizetti’s vocal lines. Generally more comfortable was Robert McPherson as Percy, though there was sometimes an emptiness of tone in the cruelly high passages Donizetti writes for the character. McPherson made an attractive figure without quite persuading one to believe in Percy’s combination of genuine bravery and besotted foolishness. (The fault was perhaps Romani’s as much as the singer’s). Robyn Lyn Evans was a stern and efficient Hervey, while Daniel Grice did much of what can be done with the undeveloped figure of Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort.
The chorus were on fine form, especially the women thereof, used as they are almost like a Greek chorus to register the emotional convolutions of their mistress, Anna. The male chorus is given rather less of musical or dramatic significance and, in this production at least, is reduced to standing and delivering rather too often, or to pacing to and fro with an air of purposefulness which is not always explained or easy to interpret.
Yet, although the production finds some aspects of the work intractable, this is an Anna Bolena well worth seeing (and even more, hearing). Donizetti almost always feels theatrically thin if one mentally compares him with Verdi, but of course the comparison is unfair. Verdi had Donizetti (and others) to learn from. Serena Farnocchia’s interpretation of the title-role and her interaction with Katharine Goeldner’s Giovanna Seymour will, I am sure, live long in my memory, much longer than any of the areas of relative weakness in the production. I, at least, look forward eagerly to the remainder of the trilogy.

Cast
Anna Bolena – Serena Farnocchia
Giovanna Seymour – Katharine Goeldner
Enrico – Alastair Miles
Lord Percy – Robert McPherson
Smeton – Faith Sherman
Lord Hervey – Robyn Lyn Evans
Lord Rochefort – Daniel Grice
Production
Conductor – Daniele Rustoni
Director – Alessandro Talevi
Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Movement – Maxine Braham
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris
Musical Preparation – Stephen Wood
Language Coach – Marco Canepa
Stage Manager – Julian Johnson
Production Manager – Robert Pagett

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Mixed Results for Pappano’s Don Carlo (Rebroadcast)

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August 26, 2013
From Seen and Heard International By: Rafael de Acha
AustriaAustria Verdi, Don Carlo: Soloists, Members of the Young Singers Project, Vienna State Opera Chorus Antonio Pappano (conductor), Agnes Méth (film director), Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria. 16.8.2013 (RDA)

We go to Don Carlo to hear Verdi’s music sung with an Italianate sound. In this performance (available on www.medici.tv) we encounter a cast made up of Russians, Germans, Americans, Brits and Finns directed by a German. Save for the wonderful Rodrigo of Thomas Hampson, who sounds more Italian than most and convincingly portrays a noble Spanish nobleman, the members of this Salzburg cast would probably not be warmly embraced by an audience accustomed to the world-class singers usually associated with this opera.
Jonas Kaufmann looks splendid as the young prince and acts convincingly the part of a complex young man riddled with guilt and filled with political ambition. But the sound he produces these days—as he quickly moves into the Wagnerian repertoire—is beefy, dark and lacking the ever-necessary “squillo” on top to make memorable the notoriously high-lying role of Don Carlo.
Anja Harteros’ voice is a tad heavier than needed for Elisabetta’s essentially-lyric music. That said, she matches Kaufmann’s stentorian sound in their two duets and survives the rigors of the part with flying colors. But her style is more Wagnerian than Verdian, her sound darker than what’s needed for the role of the young queen forced by political circumstance into a loveless marriage, her bearing less queenly than matronly.
Ekaterina Semenchuk as Eboli is apt dramatically but vocally only fair in the role of the fairest of all ladies in the court of Phillip II of Spain, eye-patch notwithstanding. She is tentative with the fioritura in “Canzone del Velo” in Act II, better in “O don fatale,” potent in her ensemble work (especially the trio with Carlo and Rodrigo), but ultimately might be a better Marfa or Marina than an Eboli.
Before this performance, I wondered if Thomas Hampson’s lyric baritone would measure up to the task at hand—he more than succeeds, with some of the best singing and acting I have heard and seen from this artist in recent times. His first scene with Carlo, capped by the “Dio che nell’ alma infondere” duet, shows him at his formidable best, sounding and looking terrific, assured and in command of the stage. His Rodrigo is much more of a mentor than a close friend to the young Prince tragically infatuated with his stepmother—a brilliant bit of casting given the difference in ages between Kaufmann and Hampson. And in his confrontation with Filippo he pulls all the vocal stops as I have never heard him before.
The Finnish basso Matti Salminen is a subtle actor—memorable in his prime as Hagen, King Marke, Daland, and Pogner—but here he is miscast. He has the gravitas, the “crin bianco” head of hair he speaks of in his aria and the authority. Missing are the long-breathed line so much of this music demands, the lyricism that “Ella giammai m’amo” cries for, the fulminating sound demanded by the Auto-da-Fe scene. Salminen portrays an odd old king—sullen, impenetrable, long-in-the-tooth and ultimately cold-hearted. Sadly, he sounds it too, being obviously taxed by his big scene with the Grand Inquisitor.
The formidable veteran English basso Robert Lloyd makes something quite memorable out of the secondary role of the Monk who turns out to be Charles V himself. Eric Halfvarson is the powerfully-sung and impeccably-acted Grand Inquisitor. Maria Celeng (Tebaldo), Sen Guo (a celestial voice), and Benjamin Bernheim (Count Lerma) fill their supporting assignments with commitment.
Peter Stein directs the production with none of his usual Regietheater missteps. He creates some wonderful stage pictures and elicits honest performances from his cast, largely devoid of any of the posturing that usually passes for acting on our operatic stages.
The look of the production is monochromatic, darkly-lit—a Spain out of a somber El Greco canvas rather than a sunny Goya. The sets mostly fare well save for a puzzling choice of what looks for all the world like a bullfighting arena for the Garden Scene in Act III. The costumes are suitably Spanish and consonant with the overall look, save for the unfortunate choice of a white sackcloth schmatte for Filippo’s cabinet scene that makes Salminen look like an insomniac grandfather rather than a king.
Antonio Pappano leads the Salzburg musicians, singers and chorus in a splendid performance, infusing it with Verdian style and passion, all-the-while paying close attention to the singers’ needs. If only the Salzburg management had given him the kind of dream cast that he regularly assembles in his London home turf.

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