A reigning monarch

Mary, Queen of Scots, after Cornelius and William Cure, plaster cast of head, (circa 1606-1616) [NPG Creative Commons]

Mary, Queen of Scots, after Cornelius and William Cure, plaster cast of head, (circa 1606-1616) [NPG Creative Commons]

The Royal Opera have assembled a wonderful cast for their performance of Maria Stuarda, but one performance reigned supreme: Joyce DiDonato as the titular Queen of Scots.

First, though, much has been said of the production by returning directorial pair Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser – and equally by those who would lambast the production and by those who would reserve their ire for the booers on the opening night, each in their own rather sanctimonious terms. At the risk of joining the former group, having been at both the opening night, and not having booed, as well as a second viewing, I’m afraid I don’t have much beef with those who did boo. It’s a messy, lazy, clumsy affair which, given how much time productions have lavished upon them for designed, prototyping, development and rehearsal, ought certainly to have been much, much better.

Act 1 Scene 1 calls to mind Carsen’s tally-ho Falstaff production, with its preponderance of red leather ‘club’ sofas, but with added backdrop of the Houses of Parliament (“Tudor details on a classical body,” as Pugin observed, coincidentally). Act 1 Scene 2 conjures up Flimm’s production of Fidelio, to one side rows of utilitarian cells on two decks (the upper deck never used) and a vast expanse across the middle so that we are just staring at the undressed stage floor, populated by the odd functional table and chair, but more noticeably criss-crossed by the tracks for scenery movements and crosses of red tape for positioning. The first two scenes of Act 2 stay put for Elizabeth’s deliberations, her signing of the warrant and confrontation with Leicester, followed by Mary’s confession. And then in from the left swings a snippet from Keith Warner’s Wozzeck (or his Nibelheim from the Ring) for the execution: a cold, clinical white-tiled box with a window and venetian blinds, which will close for the execution. The drop curtain also employs a venetian blind as a motif, a rather banal symbol of threat and the happenings ‘behind closed doors’.

by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, oil on canvas, circa 1592 [NPG Creative Commons license]

NPG 2561; Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley portrait’) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, oil on canvas, circa 1592 [NPG Creative Commons license]

Costumes layer on the absurdity and confusion. Queens in full Tudor-ish fig; everyone else in modern dress. Monarchs as ciphers, as concepts as much as the are people, seems to be the clumsy message, perhaps drawing on Elizabeth I’s observation that “we princes are set as it were upon stages in the sight and view of the world“. But, always ready for a cartoon image, Caurier & Leiser’s team saddle Elizabeth with so absurd an outfit, a sort of caricature of the costuming of the Queen from contemporary portraits, that she regularly appears to bob comically about the stage like Queenie from Blackadder, an impression reinforced as she sits on a sofa and sulks about Mary, clutching an executioner’s axe which has been handed to her by Cecil. These interventions serve to lend an absurd petulance to this fearsomely grandiose character, her authority once more undercut by the removing-of-wig trope being deployed in full view of her clamouring subjects. In fact, the fear and claustrophobia of the Tudor court is what is most lacking in this pantomimic approach to the work. The tender pathos of Mary’s confessional scene with Talbot and her stoic preparation for execution had more impact on second viewing because I’d tuned out the cartoon nonsense and given up trying to determine any threads or themes in the production, since its lack of coherence rendered such enquiries pointless. Unfortunately, not everyone is lucky enough to have two goes at it in order to make that adjustment.

Therein, I suspect, lies the booers’ problem. A serious work with a spectacular cast that is assaulted with a self-conscious barrage of half-ideas and visual tricks presents a jarring experience on first (and, in many cases, only) viewing. Much of the prison scenes comes across as a concert performance in a scenery storeroom, a fact that is only easily appreciated when you know what to expect. I am therefore heartily glad to have had a second opportunity to see it. The Manon Lescaut was much more interventionist, taken overall, but at least was closer to some sense of narrative coherence. The major problem with this Maria Stuarda was that it just looks like a bunch of random stuff (or worse, ‘clever ideas’) thrown at the stage in the hope that some moments stick. Those that do, such as Mary reaching through the execution chamber window to her followers, arranged with candles outside, and to clasp hands with Talbot, are momentarily effective, but struggle to take flight from so pedestrian a runway.  I don’t want, and I don’t believe the majority of booers want, a fustily traditional get-up even for a work as time- and place-dependent as Maria Stuarda, but I do think they want some sense of coherence and a production that places the characters in a context to which the audience can relate, and which reacts to the cues in the libretto and overall story. Unfortunately, this was far from it.

The crying shame, of course, is just how first-rate a night it was musically. Her character may have been dethroned, but DiDonato most certainly reigned. I’ve raved before about DiDonato’s overall qualities as an intelligent singer with a formidably secure voice, perfectly projected and of faultless tone with which she seems thrillingly capable of doing anything. Here again were demonstrations of her artistry. We are drawn in close by her bewitching stillness for Mary’s crisis of faith and the meditation before her execution, having elsewhere been dazzled by her visceral condemnation of Elizabeth (following a spectacularly heart-stopping, spoken ‘No!’ to those trying to restrain her). The curious combination of Mary’s obstinacy, public piety and private tragedy are beautifully laid before us.

The confession is, of course, delivered to Talbot, played with concerned gravitas by Matthew Rose. His fulsome, solid bass is a perfect counterpoint to the two warring queens. As Elizabeth, Carmen Giannattasio had an appropriate stridency to her tone for her public scenes, effective in the coloratura and with , and a stage demeanour that supplied the fearsome presence that the production did its best to destroy. At the third point of the love triangle, Ismael Jordi contributed an ardent, clear-toned Leicester, perhaps a little too ardent as it threatened to become a bit shouty at times. He coped well with an absurdly gratuitous front-of-stage half-disrobement by a frenzied Virgin Queen which, however pleasingly distracting, added nothing to the emerging story. Jeremy Carpenter was darkly ingratiating as Cecil, and Kathleen Wilkinson was of contralto-ish hue as Mary’s maid, Anna.

Bertrand de Billy brought a fizzing, idiomatic shape to the score, highly charged through the excitement of the confrontation scene, and charging headlong into the Act 1 close, whilst  providing a sympathetic expanse for the more meditative scenes as Mary contemplates her death.

A tremendous musical performance then, with drama supplied in spades by the cast to compensate for a dramatically confused, visually dispiriting production.

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