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Robert Anderson
Music & Vision, January 2010

DVD: DONIZETTI, G.: Maria Stuarda (Sferisterio Opera Festival, 2007) (NTSC) 2.110268

CD: DONIZETTI, G.: Maria Stuarda (Sferisterio Opera Festival, 2007) 8.660261–62

Malignant Fate

Donizetti has done the royal pair proud, making of each queen a credible and essentially tragic figure. The simplicity of the direction by Pier Luigi Pizzi on the huge expanse of the stage enhances the impression that all the characters are caught up in the toils of a malignant fate. Chorus and orchestra under Riccardo Frizza are wonderfully alert, and support with warm sympathy the twists and turns of the action. Naxos is gradually establishing with its operatic DVDs a reputation as impressive and secure as on CD.



David L. Kirk
Fanfare, August 2009

Since its rebirth in the mid 20th century, Maria Stuarda has become one of Donizetti’s most popular opera serias. Its popularity is perhaps aided by the presence of two juicy roles for women, making it a favorite of singers who desire to spread their dramatic as well as vocal wings. A list of Donizetti’s recorded opera serias on arkivmusic.com shows 64 Lucia di Lammermoors (both CD and DVD), followed by 21 Maria Stuardas. It is the most popular of the trio known as the Three Queens (Anna Bolena is found on 15 recordings and Roberto Devereux on 12). Some of these are the same performances released on different labels and/or in different formats. The DVD subject of this review is the second production of Maria Stuarda directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi to come my way this year. Chronologically, this is the earlier of the two; staged at the Sferisterio Opera Festival in August 2007, the other at La Scala in 2008. In addition to directing, Pizzi designed the costumes and scenery for both productions, which he also did in 1967 for a production at the Maggio Musicale.

The Sferisterio Opera Festival is an outdoor event in Macerata, Italy. The stage is huge. To fill the space, several ramps run parallel to the apron and meet at a staircase center stage. The staircase resembles three sides of a pyramid, the flat top of which serves as a miniature stage or acting area. The backdrop, which is barely discernable in the gloom, is a grid of bars in front of something resembling stone walls. Additional grid-like walls are found beneath the ramps. All of this evokes a prison, representing the fact that Maria really is in prison, and Elizabeth is in an emotional prison. Everything is painted black or a very dark shade of gray. Almost all of the costumes are black (highlighted by white collars); the only color is found in some of Elizabeth and Maria’s dresses. It is a dark, dark, dark production.

The same scenic concept is adapted for a proscenium stage in the 2008 La Scala production. The grid of bars is expanded to include the sides of the stage creating a more box-like cell feeling. An additional, much more realistic piece of scenery appears briefly at La Scala to represent the grounds outside Fotheringhay Castle. Although these two Pizzi productions of Maria Stuarda are just a year apart, the only cast member to appear in both is Simone Alberghini as Giorgio Talbot.

When originally produced, Donizetti and his librettist Giuseppe Bardari ran into censorship problems. Even though the opera is loosely (very loosely) based on English history as embellished in a German drama by Friedrich Schiller, the beheading of a monarch, especially a Catholic one at the hands of a Protestant, was not favorably received in predominately Catholic 19th-century Italy. It necessitated making protestant Queen Elizabeth the villain, and villainess she has remained. Catholic Mary Stuart, on the other hand, becomes the tragic heroine, even though she bares her teeth in act II. I’ve always found that turning Elizabeth into a one-dimensional operatic harridan robs the opera of emotional depth and interesting complexity. In both of these Pizzi productions, Elizabeth is relentlessly mean-spirited, vindictive, and occasionally irritating. I found Laura Polverelli (Sferisterio Festival) offered a more nuanced and complex characterization than Anna Caterina Antonacci at La Scala. The same can be said of Roberto de Biasio’s Leicester (Sferisterio) compared to Francesco Meli’s interpretation of the role. When reviewing the La Scala video, I cut Antonacci and Meli some slack for over-acting and singing-to-the-rafters due to the need to project in a big house, but Polverelli and de Biasio are singing in a much larger (and outdoor) venue, and their acting and singing is more restrained and credible.

In the title role of Maria, I liked both singers. Mariella Devia (La Scala) looked more fragile and vulnerable than her counterpart at Sferisterio, Maria Pia Piscitelli, but Piscitelli brought credible acting and brilliant singing to the role. Both videos are filmed in 16:9 widescreen, both offer two-channel and multichannel sound formats. The Naxos (Sferisterio Festival) only offers subtitles in English, but the Arthaus Musik (La Scala) has subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian. The Arthaus also has a 12:52 minute bonus feature, Maria Stuarda—Backstage; there are no bonus features on Naxos. I found it difficult to become involved with the Sferisterio Opera Festival production, mostly because of the relentless and frequent shifting between cameras. Annoying camerawork aside, I would recommend this Naxos DVD of the Sferisterio Opera Festival over the Arthaus Musik of the La Scala production. Overall the acting is better and the scenery is less intrusive on the drama.



Robert Cummings
Classical Net, June 2009

As the headnote above informs, this recording of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda was taken from the August 3, 2007 performance at Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata, Italy. It is therefore an open-air production, which usually means—as is the case here—that the sound reproduction has a slightly drier, somewhat less potent effect on the ear. That said, it is still clear and powerful enough when the volume control is given a boost. The most important thing, of course, is the performance itself, and it is a good one.

Maria Pia Piscitelli, in the title role, turns in a knock-out performance. Her big numbers in the beginning of Act II (tracks 14–16), Guarda: sui prati appare, O nube! che lieve per l’aria ti aggiri and Nella pace del mesto riposo, are all stunningly delivered, and her high notes here and elsewhere exhibit both power and beauty. Moreover, her dramatic skills are fully convincing from her first appearance in the Second Act to the impassioned final scene. Laura Polverelli, in the role of Elizabetta, begins a bit tentatively but gets stronger as the performance goes along. Others in the cast also turn in fine work, particularly Roberto De Basio as Leicester.

Conductor Riccardo Frizza leads the proceedings with a knowing hand, choosing appropriate tempos and drawing fine work from the chorus and orchestra. The production features rather barren scenery-the same sets are used throughout, with big central steps and sloping walkways, and little else within view. Yet, the whole is quite atmospheric and effective. In fact, I have no qualms at all about stage director Pizzi’s conception of the work. The costuming appears to be historically accurate too, with red and black dominating, but with a sort of regal golden outfit for Elizabetta. The camera work is quite intelligently conceived, as well.As many have already observed, this is a fine Donizetti opera, a work though that has suffered neglect over the years, alongside Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’Amore. To me, it is nearly at the level of Lucia and thus probably deserves greater attention. In sum, this DVD is a fine rendition of this Donizetti masterpiece. Highly recommended.



Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, May 2009

As the headnote above informs, this recording of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda was taken from the August 3, 2007 performance at Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata, Italy. It is therefore an open-air production, which usually means—as is the case here—that the sound reproduction has a slightly drier, somewhat less potent effect on the ear. That said, it is still clear and powerful enough when the volume control is given a boost. The most important thing, of course, is the performance itself, and it is a good one.

Maria Pia Piscitelli, in the title role, turns in a knock-out performance. Her big numbers in the beginning of Act II (tracks 14–16), Guarda: sui prati appare, O nube! che lieve per l’aria ti aggiri and Nella pace del mesto riposo, are all stunningly delivered, and her high notes here and elsewhere exhibit both power and beauty. Moreover, her dramatic skills are fully convincing from her first appearance in the Second Act to the impassioned final scene. Laura Polverelli, in the role of Elizabetta, begins a bit tentatively but gets stronger as the performance goes along. Others in the cast also turn in fine work, particularly Roberto De Basio as Leicester.

Conductor Riccardo Frizza leads the proceedings with a knowing hand, choosing appropriate tempos and drawing fine work from the chorus and orchestra. The production features rather barren scenery-the same sets are used throughout, with big central steps and sloping walkways, and little else within view. Yet, the whole is quite atmospheric and effective. In fact, I have no qualms at all about stage director Pizzi’s conception of the work. The costuming appears to be historically accurate too, with red and black dominating, but with a sort of regal golden outfit for Elizabetta. The camera work is quite intelligently conceived, as well.As many have already observed, this is a fine Donizetti opera, a work though that has suffered neglect over the years, alongside Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’Amore. To me, it is nearly at the level of Lucia and thus probably deserves greater attention. In sum, this DVD is a fine rendition of this Donizetti masterpiece. Highly recommended.




Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, May 2009

This performance took place in the open air. The venue was the curved Arena Sferisterio in Macerata, a city in the Marche area of Italy that has hosted a Festival for over thirty years. It is in one of the most unusual arenas. Originally built in the 1820s for the practice of the ball game, pallone involving ricochets off the long wall. When the potential of its massive size was recognised in the 1960s it was restored and it now seats over six thousand spectators. The arena is featured in all its glory on this DVD, except for its massive back wall which is shielded by the set (CH.1).

The great expanse of hidden wall provides a width of stage that frequently challenges producers; not so the vastly experienced Pier Luigi Pizzi. He is the latest to attempt to put the Sferisterio more firmly centre-stage among Italy’s opera festivals. Maria Stuarda must have been dominating his thoughts for some time. In any event this production in the summer 2007 was quickly followed by another under his direction at La Scala in January 2008. The set for the two productions has many similarities with walkways and central steps. Here at Macerata the sloping walkways disguise the width of the stage well, whilst their supports of widely spaced latticed bars represent Maria’s gaol somewhat less dominantly than in the Scala production. The set remains the same throughout with no attempt to suggest Fotheringay forest in act two scene one, just as it was at La Scala.

The soprano diva, like the appropriate period costumes, were to have been common between the Scala and Macerata productions with Mariella Devia, the Italian coloratura soprano de nos jours scheduled to sing Elisabeth in both. The illness and death of her husband meant cancellation at Macerata although she managed to go ahead at La Scala to give, as I report, a formidable portrayal. The cancellation could have meant disaster for Macerata’s plans, as the role of Elisabeth is a particular demanding one. It could have been thought that the Festival was hitting the kind of problems that beset Donizetti when the Bourbon King of Naples unilaterally cancelled the Naples premiere in 1834. Not so. Pizzi turned to Maria Pia Piscitelli who won the Schwetzingen Rossini Competition as long ago as 1991 and has since plied her trade in America and Japan as well as her native Italy. She gives a very differently sung performance to Mariella Devia, being altogether more dramatic and less florid whilst equally convincing within Pizzi’s conception. She is a little tentative vocally at the start as Elisabeth responds to the marriage proposal from France (CH.4). Once into her stride, as when she meets Leicester and expresses her distrust of him before finally kissing him passionately, she reveals impressive depths of dramatic vocal resource and variety of tonal expression and colour, ideal of a good belcantist (CHs.11–13). Maria Pia Piscitelli’s acted and vocal strengths are outstanding in act two as she confronts Maria Stuarda at Fotheringay in the famous confrontation when the Catholic Maria responds to Elisabeth’s chiding and demeaning of her by referring to the Queen as Impure daughter of Anne Boleyn (CHs.21–22) with the famous Profanato e il soglio inglese, vil bastards, dal tuo pie! (The English throne is profaned, despicable bastard, by your presence!). In this performance the confrontation is hair raising in both sung and acted intensity. Maria Pia Piscitelli rounds off her portrayal by a similarly portrayed act three scene one as Elisabeth, fearing loss of her tranquillity, first hesitates and then at Cecil’s behest, signs Maria’s death warrant and demands that Leicester attend the execution (CHs.24–27).

The dramatic scene between the two Queens cannot be as frisson loaded as this one certainly is unless the mezzo soprano singing Maria can match Elisabeth for singing and acting; Laura Polverelli can certainly do that. She sings with smooth legato and an excellent range of vocal colour and expression and, as with her soprano colleague, diction is first rate. She is poignant at the start of her duet with her maid Anna at Fotheringay (CH.14) and gives a consummate dramatic vocal display as Maria becomes apprehensive about the meeting with Elisabeth that she herself has requested (CH.16). Laura Polverelli’s singing and acting in the final scene as Maria confesses her sins to Talbot, referring to Darnley but refusing to talk of Babington (CHs.29–31), before praying that Elisabeth will not be troubled by conscience, is purer vocally than that of Anna Caterina Antonacci at La Scala. Poverelli’s acting is at a similar level of facial and bodily involvement particularly as she calls Anna and Leicester to her before ascending the stirs to the executioner and laying her head on the block.

As Leicester Roberto De Basio is distinctly better than his La Scala colleague with a bright forward and pleasingly Italianate squilla to his tone. Add sensitive phrasing and a good range of expression and tonal colour and his interpretation is wholly convincing. Notable are his singing in his duet with Talbot (CHs.8–10), confrontation with Elisabeth (CHs.11–13) and his ardent pleas to Maria (CHs.17–19) where their concluding phrases are unified as one in both phrasing and expression. As at La Scala Simone Alberghini sings well as Talbot and with more acted commitment than at La Scala. Mario Cassi’s strongly sung Cecil is rather bland in his acting. Riccardo Frizza conducts with verve and vitality as well as with a strong dramatic sense. The Chorus Lirico Marchigiano is outstanding as is the recorded sound. The video director is a little fussy with over constant movement between close up, mid and distant shots.

I awarded the La Scala production the imprimatur of Recording of the Month. I am going to do the same with this performance. My only niggle with it is in the edition used. The La Scala production uses the Critical Edition by Anders Kiklund that has some additional music to this one, which uses that, published by BMG Ricordi. The differences arise from the cancellation by the King on Naples of the premiere. Given his situation and the music completed, Donizetti had little say in the demand to set the music to another text. The safer subject chosen was related to the strife between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in pre renaissance Florence. Donizetti composed some new music and titled the work Buondelmonte. Not unexpectedly it was not a resounding success. Donizetti withdrew it after its Naples performances, determined to have Maria Stuarda performed somewhere in the form he had originally planned. In the interim he composed Gemma di Vergy for Milan, Marino Faliero for Paris and Lucia di Lamermoor for Naples. Whilst Maria Stuarda does not have quite the continuous melodic flow of Lucia di Lamermoor, it has its own melodic strengths and plenty of drama to compensate.

With further new music Maria Stuarda finally reached the stage at La Scala in December 1835 where after a mere six performances it was withdrawn on the instructions of the Milanese censors. It did not reach Naples in its original form until 1865 when both composer and Bourbon rulers were gone and after which it disappeared until revived in 1958 in Bergamo, Donizetti’s hometown. Various versions of the score feature in audio recordings by the likes of Joan Sutherland (Decca 425 410–2), Edita Gruberova (Philips 475 224–2), and unofficial issues involving Leyla Gencer and Beverley Sills. Opera houses in Italy and elsewhere took up the work, particularly after a significant production by Giorgio de Home Lullo for the Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1967 featuring Leyla Gencer and Shirley Verrett. The set design and costumes for that production were by Pier Luigi Pizzi, director, set designer and costume designer at this and the La Scala production in 2008. His long experience of the work and the bel canto genre are evident in both.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Today one of Donizetti’s most popular dramatic operas, it is only in the last forty years that Maria Stuarda has entered the standard repertoire. Composed in 1834, it was immediately dogged by unrelated problems that plunged it into obscurity, and only in the 1960s did it begin to receive performances when famous sopranos discovered the scores potential for virtuosity. The libretto’s historical accuracy is fragile and cuts out many relevant characters to keep it within the scope of 19th century operatic traditions. Donizetti settled for the simple plot of an imprisoned Mary Stuart, pretender to the crowns of Scotland, France and England, versus her captor, Queen Elizabeth. Throw into the conflict the Earl of Leicester who is in love with Mary but desired by Elizabeth, and you have the eternal love triangle. It is here presented at the Sferisterio Opera Festival in Marcerata, an open-air venue with an enormous stage, that is not be ideal for a work that mainly takes place in intimate surroundings. It leaves the director, Pier Luigi Pizzi, using just a small central section after the big opening chorus, recreating history through the use of period dress. Vocally Maria Pia Piscitelli’s Mary is a red-blooded soprano well able to deal with Donizetti’s demands, though she is visually overshadowed by the Elizabeth of Laura Polverelli. I have heard the big confrontation scene fire-off more vocal salvos, but both are otherwise dramatically exciting. Singing with that typical Italian tenor quality of yesteryear and still much in demand, Roberto De Biasio is the likeable Leicester caught up in the female rivalry, and though Donizetti gives little of importance to the other characters, they are all well sung. Good orchestral playing, and only applause in the most inappropriate places comes as the film’s one irritation. Visually excellent, the film crew judiciously mix close ups with the need to capture the immense stage in the opening and final scenes. It is a release I much commend.






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