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Gregory Moomjy
Music & Vision, February 2010

A New Light

Every passion has its Mecca. For film lovers, it is Hollywood. For Shakespeare fans, it is The Globe. And for opera aficionados, it is La Scala in Milan. Therefore, my anticipation when I saw that La Scala had put its 2008 production of Donizetti’s masterwork Maria Stuarda on DVD requires no explanation. Thankfully, that temple to opera did not disappoint me. Maria Stuarda is a beautiful piece, and one of my most cherished favorites. But this production, under the leadership of Antonino Fogliani, which stars Mariella Devia as Maria and Anna Caterina Antonacci as her suspicious sister, reinvigorated this lyric tragedy, and presented it in a new light.

It is often the case with bel canto opera that at least one conductor plays to the melodious and lyrical strength of the score. This is easy to do with Maria Stuarda. Donizetti does this effortlessly in his breathtaking presentation of Maria Stuarda, the second of the three operas in his ‘The Three Queens’ trilogy. However, unlike Aldo Ceccato, who conducts my recording with Beverly Sills, Antonino Fogliani plays to both the lyrical and dramatic strengths of the piece.

From the overture on, Mr Fogliani permeates the opera with an impending sense of doom, signifying Mary’s inevitable fate. This urgency can first be seen during the overture with the strings. One is overcome by Fogliani’s highlighting of the ubiquitous drum rolls; this is something that had been understated in previous conductors’ treatments of the score. Perhaps Fogliani made the choice to include the militaristic sound of the snare drums instead of timpani to foreshadow the Scottish queen’s dramatic decapitation. Also, he seems to infuse the overture with a dramatic quality reminiscent of Verdi. Donizetti was rumored to be the bel canto composer who had the most influence on Verdi, which is most evident in this production. The speed with which Fogliani infused the score helped to emphasize its dramatic potential.

This is highlighted in such points as the transitions between Queen Elizabeth’s cavatina and cabalata, Ah, quando all’ara scogemi and Ah, dal ciel discenda un ragio respectively. The heightened tension here serves to emphasize the division that the fate of ‘la Stuarda’ has created in the English court. The same thing occurs during the confrontation between Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester at the end of the first scene of Act II. In much the same way, Fogliani’s faster tempo during Va, preparati, furente serves to bring out the best qualities of that kind of musical modality, the stretta. However, when necessary, Fogliani could also slow down, which was appropriate during the final section of the Act I duet for Maria and Leicester, Da tutti abbandonata. Here the slow tempo highlights the intimate nature of the duet. While the conductor’s performance hardly needs any improvement, I would advise him not to truncate certain pieces, namely Quali sensi and D’una sorella, o barbara. When the latter is played to completion normally, it ends with a very emphatic cascade, which is missing from this production. Had it been in place, it would have perhaps heightened the intensity.

There was an interesting change in the chorus that opened Act I. On a previous recording, the chorus sings a lively piece full of joy due to the approaching nuptials of Queen Elizabeth and the King of France. However, in this production, the chorus sings a piece that retains the jubilation of the occasion, but at the same time is very foreboding. It sounds similar to the wedding chorus that opens Act II of L’elisir D’amore, only this chorus is much darker and more effective.

In the spirit of nineteenth century opera, Maria Stuarda contains a rivalry between soprano and mezzo-soprano, which eventually comes to a head in a confrontation. For this reason, both soprano and mezzo-soprano require not only a rich voice, but also a commanding stage presence. In the part of Queen Elizabeth, Anna Caterina Antonacci fulfills both requirements wonderfully. She is perhaps the best of the three mezzos I have heard in the role. The other two are Eileen Farrell and Rosalind Plowright. Her performance lacked Plowright’s ornamentation; However, it not only contained Farrell’s depth of voice, but it added a dimension to the character that was absent in both Plowright and Farrell’s interpretations. There is no denying that Elizabeth is the villain of the opera, but Antonacci’s English queen was multi-dimensional. She portrayed her as a woman who was caught in between two different worlds, the world of a sovereign who had to sacrifice her life and personal happiness for the sake of the public, and her secret yearning to be desired by the man she loved. I found this interpretation much more congruent with the character of Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux. To accomplish this, Antonacci moved easily between a commanding low register and a soft but somehow vulnerable top register. She was able to demonstrate this most effectively in Quali sensi. Like Beverly Sills, who played the queen’s much older counterpart in Roberto Devereux, she used body language to demonstrate both her unquestionable authority as queen and her susceptibility as a lonely woman. This can be seen at the end of Quali sensi, after Leicester has convinced Elizabeth to visit Maria in prison, where she gives him a very forceful kiss. This kiss strengthens the idea that Elizabeth was trying desperately to maintain control over the man she loved. Additionally, during the confrontation scene, Antonacci made good use of her riding crop, both to demonstrate Elizabeth’s anger at Mary and to reaffirm her control as queen.

As Maria Stuarda, Mariella Devia gave a lyrical and dramatically convincing performance. Like Ms Antonacci, she is blessed with a developed voice in both upper and lower registers. However, I confess it took me a while to get used to the rich timbre of her voice. My knowledge of the role is dominated by Sills. It is said that she had the purest soprano voice; therefore, I was a little taken aback by Ms Devia’s timbre during her entrance in Act I, Scene II. However, like Beverly Sills, she used her lower register primarily to give emphasis to dramatic passages. I cannot say who gave a better performance, because they both possessed qualities that the other lacked. Ms Devia gave a far more ornamental rendition of Maria’s cabaletta Nella pace, nel mesto riposo. I felt this interpretation was closer to the conventions of bel canto opera. Also, during the final scene Ah, se un giorno da queste ritorte, her pacing was slower, which gave more emphasis to what I believe was the crux of the scene, when she tells Leicester not to be angry over her death and that she prays that England will not have to suffer ‘the wrath of a punitive god’.

In contrast, Sills, who I’ve always described as the queen of high notes and ornaments, gave a much more meaningful rendition of Maria’s cavatina Oh nube! che lieve per l’aria ti aggiri. She accomplished this by holding the first high note. In Ms Devia’s case, it wasn’t a matter of reaching the high note, but rather holding on to it. If she held it the slightest bit, it would not only have added to the beauty of the piece, but also to its dramatic value. Also, in the ensemble for Maria and chorus in the last scene Deh! tu di un’umile preghiera, which constitutes Mary’s final prayer with her entire court, Ms Devia opted not to hold the second note over the chorus. While it might have been a personal decision concerning ornamentation, the piece could have packed even more of a punch by holding certain notes longer. These are just minor suggestions. On the whole, she gave a wonderful performance.

The rest of the cast was in fine voice as well. I especially enjoyed Paola Gardina and Francesco Meli who played Maria’s maid, Anna Kennedy and Leicester respectively. As regards Ms Gardina, she had a beautiful deep voice. Unfortunately the role of Anna Kennedy is one of those caprimario roles where one doesn’t get to sing much. However, I foresee a future for her in the dramatic mezzo roles of Verdi, especially as Aida’s Amneris, Princess of Egypt.

As Leicester, Mr Meli gave a fine performance. Meli’s performance contained true joy and served to emphasize Leicester’s romantic nature. Mr Meli should do more work in Donizetti tenor roles, especially as Ernesto, Edgardo and Anna Bolena’s Lord Richard Percy.

Finally, the physical aspects of the production set the opera in a way I had never expected. Unlike typical productions which set the piece in stereotypical English palaces and prisons, this production consisted of a catwalk surrounded by prison bars. The iron bars were set against a blank screen which changed colors depending on the scene. I thought this helped to emphasize the point that both Elizabeth and Maria were prisoners, regardless of whether the imprisonment was psychological or physical. I also thought that the choice of colors that illuminated the screen were interesting. During the scenes in Elizabeth’s palace, the screen turned a deep red, whereas when depicting Mary’s prison, the screen turned a very deep shade of grey. This helped to emphasize the contrast between anger and suspicion on one hand, and on the other despair and suffering. Also, during the duet for Elizabeth and Leicester at the end of the first scene of Act I, the silhouette of a woman could be seen in the background. I presume this was the specter of Mary who even from her prison cell haunted Elizabeth.

When everything is taken into consideration, La Scala lived up to its reputation. The company provided a convincing and wonderfully artistic interpretation of this beautiful opera. We will never know if Mary Stuart was innocent or not, but when the story of her final days is performed so wonderfully, one can only hope that if she were here today she would smile.

David L. Kirk
Fanfare, July 2009

This is a better-than-average production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. It’s impressively cast and costumed, although the set may challenge viewers looking for a traditional production. The unit-set is a large jail cell. The vertical and horizontal bars fill three sides of the stage, floor to loft, and include ramps and a central staircase. Behind the bars is a cyclorama that is effectively lit with a variety of hues and colors throughout the performance. A second, much more realistic, set appears briefly in the first act to depict the grounds at Fotheringhay Castle. This La Scala production of Maria Stuarda is performed in two acts rather than the customary three; the traditional first and second acts are combined into act I.

Mariella Devia and Anna Caterina Antonacci are nicely contrasted as the two queens. Elizabeth is very much the villain in Donizetti’s opera based on Schiller’s drama. Antonacci is tall and commands the stage as a regal and cold Elizabeth. She’s the Queen from Snow White with high notes. Although Queen Mary is the heroine, and is intended to be the recipient of our sympathies, she does have a feisty side that comes to the fore at Fotheringhay. Soprano Devia effectively creates a character that is warm and kindly, but never loses sight of the fact that she’s royalty with an iron resolve. In Fanfare 32:3, I noted that in a 2004 performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, Mariella Devia was not in top form vocally. I am happy to report that in this 2008 Maria Stuarda her voice is firm and radiant, and with the bel canto suppleness she is noted for.

The sound (PCM stereo, DD 5.1) and the wide screen 16: 9 picture are very good; the subtitles (English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian) are usually displayed in the black area beneath the picture. As is increasingly common with videos of staged events, the image shifts frequently between the abundance of cameras involved.

A 13-minute bonus feature, Maria Stuarda Backstage is included. Devia and Antonacci offer commentary regarding their roles, and stage/set designer Pier Luigi Pizzi discusses his vision of the opera. Conductor Antonino Fogliani has a few brief comments.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, June 2009

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda was smoothly performed at La Scala in 2008 (101361). Sopranos Anna Caterina Antonacci (Elisabetta) and Mariella Devia (Maria) are terrific in their taxing major roles. Francesco Meli is Leicester, whom both women love, but who loves Maria and ultimately sacrifices himself for her. Simone Alberghini (Talbot) and Piero Terranova (Cecil) are fine in these subsidiary roles. Antonino Fogliani conducts the excellent orchestra proficiently. The libretto is not historical, but based on Schiller’s great play. The music is formulaic, in that most arias and duets begin with the theme partially played by the orchestra, and the composer tends to write the same sort of vocal music in similar dramatic circumstances. It is laid out in scenes made for music: big arias for Elisabetta and Maria, duets for Elisabetta and Leicester and Elisabetta and Maria in the climactic scene in the opera. The chorus is very active in the execution scenes at the end of the opera even if its music seems stock and impersonal for the occasion. Fine sound in PCM Stereo and Dolby 5.1 Surround.

John Steane
Gramophone, June 2009

Musically, the performance is efficient, with brisk tempi and well drilled ensembles. Mariella Devia sings her final solos with feeling and some richness of tone. Anna Caterina Antonacci is well up to the technical demands of her music but, contrary to the general opinion, I do not find a great deal of character in the voice itself. Francesco Meli is a likeable tenor, still (in 2008) not reliably effective in his upper register.

Judith Malafronte
Opera News, June 2009

Director and designer Pier Luigi Pizzi brings his customary plush textures and theatrical pomp to the set and costumes, which suggest a nineteenth-century fantasy of Elizabethan splendor. (Pizzi also helmed the 1967 revival at the Maggio Musicale in Florence that starred Leyla Gencer and Shirley Verrett as Mary and Elizabeth, respectively.) Broad movement and simple stage pictures (plus plenty of real torches) suffice for staging, but Pizzi does no harm to the piece and, by staying out of the way of his singers, allows the score itself to triumph.

The set consists of a gigantic cage, representing both Mary’s literal prison and Elizabeth’s political constraints, with steep ramps and a central staircase whose landing offers a focal point for royal pronouncements, ceremonial matters and the final fall of the axe. In her opening cavatina, “O nube che lieve,” Mary recalls her happiness in France, and a forest emerges magically, as if Mary had willed into existence this natural beauty by the force of her description.

Tenor Francesco Meli is a plausible Leicester, in love with Mary but feigning loyalty to Elizabeth. Meli displays a youthful optimism, and his singing is ardent and appealing, especially in Act II. Simone Alberghini’s Talbot and Piero Terranova’s Lord Cecil are workaday, and conductor Antonino Fogliani does little but keep the orchestra from falling apart.

But it’s those dueling queens that really matter. As the paranoid Elizabeth and the desperate but composed Mary, Anna Caterina Antonacci and Mariella Devia provide strong contrasts. Antonacci uses her steely voice carefully, and the results can be monochromatic, but she’s not afraid to look or sound frightening. Outfitted in heavy brocades and stiff contours, including a black-leather riding outfit and harsh white makeup, she makes a powerful Elizabeth.

Still in top form at the age of sixty, Devia is a vocal miracle, boasting controlled, stylish and gorgeous singing that should be required listening for student sopranos (and a few current stars). Pizzi has outfitted Mary in silvery-grey, with soft drapery, and her staging involves more sensual and curved postures. Similarly, Devia’s singing is warmly colored, supple and soft-textured, though she can bring bite when needed, especially in the confrontation scene between the two queens (historically inaccurate but theatrically delicious), and her top Ds ring out triumphantly.

Robert Levine, May 2009

Composed five years after his Anna Bolena, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda does not quite reach the level of through-composed sophistication or pathos as the earlier opera; but it is a great work nonetheless. Within the conventions of aria-cabaletta Donizetti still manages to vary mood thoroughly, with Maria’s final scene a masterpiece of changing form and expression. And he has, at the end of the second act, one of his greatest trump cards: the invented-by-Schiller, hair-raising (and hair-pulling) confrontation between the lovely Mary and the harridan-like Elizabeth I in Fotheringay Park. I have always wanted to believe that if the two had met, it would have turned out precisely the way Schiller envisioned it—and the way Donizetti composed it.

The opera had a stormy birth, with many revisions required to satisfy the censors, and even the “final” premiere, on December 30, 1835, starring Maria Malibran, was troubled: the singer was indisposed. And then, after a few successful performances, the censors again dropped by and stopped the show, and the opera was not heard again until 1958. It was soon championed by Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé, Janet Baker, and Beverly Sills in the sympathetic title role, with an equally impressive collection of singers as Elisabetta. This DVD, recorded at La Scala in January, 2008, and directed, designed, and costumed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, stars two of today’s bel canto specialists, Mariella Devia and Anna Caterina Antonacci.

Antonacci, whom I had just seen on a DVD starring as Carmen, seems able to sing anything, and she handles Elisabetta’s somewhat angular but highly decorated music handsomely. An attractive woman and formidable stage presence, she is costumed alternately in ghastly orange drapery and ghastly white and black riding gear, with severe white make-up. While looking nothing like any portrait of Elisabeth I’ve ever seen (unlike Beverly Sills as Elisabetta in her video of Roberto Devereux, which is frighteningly imitative), she certainly could scare the animals. She is not the cleanest of bel cantists, occasionally smudging runs and making some nasty sounds, but hers is a thoroughly satisfying, vicious, vindictive portrayal.

As her opposite, the supposedly beautiful (hence the jealousy of Elisabeth) Maria, Mariella Devia is vocally ideal, but the close-ups do not altogether help: she is, um…mousy. That aside, and although she is also dressed unflatteringly in a gray that could make a sidewalk look colorful, from the moment she begins to sing her first aria we know we are in the presence of the lovelier of the two women. Donizetti’s writing for Maria is sympathetic and melodic, unlike Elisabetta’s, and Devia spins out the graceful tunes with ease and poise, adding spectacular—and secure—high notes to her lines and, of course, final cadences.

The confrontation itself, in which Mary calls Elizabeth a “vile bastard”, is as stunning as it ought to be, with the women sparring and matching each other, venomous outburst for venomous outburst. On CD, only Caballé and Verrett (on various “private” labels) and Sills and Farrell (on Decca) outdo these two—quite a compliment. (Sutherland sounds a bit tame and Huguette Tourangeau, though dramatically viable, sounds as if her voice is coming through a cavity other than her mouth; they also provide the soundtrack for an abridged, bizarre DVD version on Image Entertainment that stars some Czech actors mouthing the words.) Devia’s lengthy final scenes are exquisite; she sings gloriously and acts with dignity, with lovely pianissimos and powerful eruptions. Her ready-for-execution red dress is very impressive.

The tenor role, Roberto, Conte di Leicester, is somewhat unsympathetic, and the vocal line sits right in the tenor’s passaggio—E, F, G, A-flat—with only occasional flights to B-natural. Francesco Meli cuts a dashing figure, sings directly on the text, and handles the awkward transitions very well. As Maria’s confessor, Giorgio Talbot, bass-baritone Simone Alberghini’s dry tone does not help, but he is a compassionate figure nonetheless. Piero Terranova’s Lord Cecil helps to inflame Elisabetta. All the men are in black, sometimes frilled, sometimes leathered, always formal.

Pizzi’s sets consist of black bars, horizontal and vertical, and long staircases that meet at center stage, with a slate gray bench or two thrown in for, well, sitting (or standing on, as Maria does at one point). This prison-like motif is broken only at the start of the Fotheringay scene, when the bars are replaced for a few moments by trees that disappear as soon as Elisabetta enters. The effect actually works. Pizzi’s direction, particularly of the two women in their knock-down scene, is telling and true. Conductor Antonino Fogliani leads a taut, exciting performance that holds together even in rambunctious moments, with Maria’s tenderness underscored nicely in her solo scenes.

The only video competition (besides the Czech production mentioned above) is on Dynamic, with Carmela Remigio and Sonia Ganassi (from Bergamo) as under-par protagonists in an ugly production. I wonder what happened to the VHS version from the English National Opera with Dame Janet Baker and Rosalind Plowright—it was splendid. Arthaus’ picture and sound are first rate and subtitles are available in all major European languages. The direction for small screen is excellent; we see reactions for every action. This is highly recommended.

Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, April 2009

Donizetti had found fame with his Anna Bolena in Milan 1830 and with L’Elisir d’Amore (1832). At the time of the composition of Maria Stuarda in 1834 he had embarked on the richest period of his career. With the death of Bellini the previous year he was in a pre-eminent position among Italian opera composers…Schiller, a historian as well as a dramatist, undertook detailed research for his plays. He was also well versed in the political and religious conflicts of the age. Consequently Maria Stuarda is not without foundation in historical fact albeit his confrontation between the two Queens is pure invention for dramatic effect; the two corresponded but never met. Badari and Donizetti stripped away the political intrigue and pared down the number of characters to six. Although Maria Stuarda lacks the flow of melodic invention of Lucia di Lamermoor there is no want of melodic beauty, making up for any loss by dramatic tension…The essential set of Pizzi’s production highlights the prison theme, comprising vertical bars among which are horizontal walkways. There is also a central stepped dais. This prison motif is only broken for the start of the Fotheringay scene when the bars are replaced by an effective transformation into trees and parkland. The bars reappear as Elisabeth enters. Costumes are in period with Elisabeth excessively pasty-faced throughout. In the first scene of act one she is regally dressed with long train and ornamental headgear. In the Fotheringay scene she wears a long cream coat and incongruous pearls over leathers and wields a whip for the meeting with her rival. She looks like an upmarket dominatrix as she strides the stage. Her lifting of Maria’s chin with the whip as the latter kneels in supplication is one stage too far for the Catholic Queen. She vents her fury at Elisabeth (CH. 22) with fateful phrases accusing Elisabeth of being the unchaste daughter of Anne Boleyn and spitting out the ultimate insult Profanato e il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo pie! (The English throne is profaned, despicable bastard, by your presence!). The vocal and acted contrast of Mariella Devia’s singing at this point, with that earlier with her companion Anna (CHs.14–16) is an excellent indication of her vocal prowess and her domination of the score and the role. Mariella Devia may never have had the recognition of Sutherland and Sills in this repertoire, but in this performance she shows what a fine actress and considerable belcantist she is, even in the autumn of her career. The poignancy of her singing and acting in the final scenes, dressed in red as historical record demands, is as good as it gets. She sings a superbly expressive confession (CH. 31) and lament (CH. 34) with carefully weighted tone and legato line. Her facial and body acting supplement the words as she asks that her blood redeem all and makes supplication for the life of Elisabeth who has condemned her. As the cannon shot is heard she then ascends to the block, where the executioner wielding his axe has appeared, for the final well-staged dramatic moments (CHs. 33–36).

The confrontation scene with Maria also brings out the best in Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Elisabeth. Not always as pure vocally as her rival queen, she can certainly act and spit fire and generally up the emotional temperature as she plays on Leicester’s emotions (CHs.11–13). She also matches Mariella Devia for vocal expression in the confrontation scene. As Leicester, loved by the queen and in love with Maria, Francesco Meli is a considerable disappointment vocally. I really do not know where his career is going. Having moved from the high tessitura of the Rossini opera seria roles, I read that he aspires to the traditional lyric tenor faCH. But in this performance his tone is dry and there is no magic or elegance in his phrasing, albeit his appearance and acting are better. Simone Alberghini is a sonorous Talbot in need of more facial expression whilst Pietro Terranova is both vocally and as an actor wholly appropriate as Cecil. Paola Gardina sings appealingly as Anna.

The whole performance is well held together by Antonino Fogliani in the pit. The chorus make a vibrant contribution and Pizzi’s direction is well caught by the video director. The sound cannot be faulted.

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