“Hoots, mon! Where’s ma heid?” – ‘Maria Stuarda’ at the WMC

6 Oct

Maria Stuarda

And so to the final installment in Welsh National Opera’s Tudor Trilogy, Donizetti’s trio of operas based on Tudor queens. Last week we had the stylish but musically limp Anna Bolena, about Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife; then, on Wednesday, it was the turn of Elizabeth I in the truly showstopping Roberto DevereuxLast night the stage was taken once again by Elizabeth I, squaring up to her nemesis and cousin, Mary Stuart, better known as Mary Queen of Scots.

Chronologically, in terms of both story and order of composition, this is the middle chapter in Donizetti’s Tudor epic. Here, Elizabeth is a younger queen, but just as prone to bitter jealousy as the older, more brazenly villainous character seen in Devereux. Maria Stuarda forms a kind of spiritual bridge between Bolena – in which Elizabeth’s mother Anne is a woman (to borrow a Shakespearean turn of phrase) more sinned against than sinning and Devereux, in which Elizabeth proves to be every bit her father’s daughter when it comes to the ruthless elimination of former flames.

In its first half Stuarda performs a kind of seesaw between Elizabeth and Mary, the first few scenes focused almost exclusively on the Elizabethan court before the action shifts to Mary’s incarceration at Fotheringhay Castle. Even so, Mary is a constant presence. Madeleine Boyd’s set – again using the same plain black background as Devereux and Bolena – is dominated by two large, cuboid cells. One, dressed with ornate, mahogany-like panels, belongs to Elizabeth; the other, identical in size and shape, is its bare, skeletal twin, representing Mary’s prison cell at Fotheringhay.

Maria Stuarda

As we’ve already seen in both Bolena and Devereux, Donizetti couldn’t even count the number of fucks he gave for historical accuracy on one finger, so it’s no surprise that he has Elizabeth and Mary meet. That said, this is a common feature in many dramatic portrayals of the story, with the two squaring up to each other in just about every movie and TV series based on them, from Mary of Scotland (starring Katherine Hepburn) to Elizabeth: The Golden Age (with Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton).

Where Donizetti goes one further than his TV and big screen successors is in doing away with much of the political and religious turmoil behind the cousins’ bitter rivalry, reducing it to its basest – and most historically inaccurate – elements. You see, according to Donizetti, Elizabeth hated Mary not because she was a Catholic who plotted against Elizabeth’s life but because she was having an affair with Elizabeth’s favourite – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

"Hold the fucking phone..."

“Oh no she di’in’t.”

The midpoint confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary, in which Mary – who has had it up to here with Elizabeth’s trash talk – turns the tables on her captor, calling her a “whore” and a “vile bastard”, was enough to make the WMC audience gasp in 2013, and over 150 years earlier saw the opera more or less banned throughout much of the 19th Century. It’s certainly dramatic stuff…

But no. This Footballers Wives-like confrontation didn’t actually happen. Nor, when Mary was about to climb the scaffold, did Leicester draw a semi-automatic handgun and shoot himself in the chest. This addition – which caused some of those sat near us to giggle – is more the work of director Rudolf Frey than Donizetti, and was one of several baffling notes in the production, alongside Lord Burleigh’s strangely anachronistic clip folder and the impromptu fag break that Mary and her servant Hannah take when no-one’s looking.

Now, I know what you’ll say. You’ll say, “Hey, didn’t you enjoy Roberto Devereux? And didn’t that involve the queen riding around on a giant mechanical spider?” And yes, you’re right on both counts, but with Devereux, a certain, expressionistic visual licence was present from the get-go. Here, no visual or artistic justification is given for these  flourishes – the production doesn’t earn them – and so when they appear they simply seem a little silly.

Though it's still unlikely to win the coveted "Silliest Depiction of A British Royal Award 2013".

Though it’s still unlikely to win the coveted “Silliest Depiction of A British Royal Award 2013”.

This is a shame, as out of all three operas Maria Stuarda has perhaps the most well-rounded and sympathetic protagonist, and comes closest to feeling like a genuine tragedy – rather than a brutal spat between jealous, sex-mad aristocrats. Donizetti’s use of the chorus here is at its strongest, and – save for a single bum note fairly early on – Judith Howarth’s performance as Mary has been a highlight of the whole trilogy.

The device of the two boxes, mirroring one another, works splendidly in some scenes (the moment when Mary plays “reflection” to Elizabeth, only to have her throat “cut” with a daub of paint, was a visual stand-out), but in others leaves the main cast and chorus with far too little space to move around, pushing them awkwardly out to the periphery. The production, on the whole, doesn’t feel quite as tight as Devereux or Bolena, both of which were directed by Alessandro Talevi. That said, the opera’s climax – Leicester’s gun-play aside – is every bit as gripping as – and possibly more moving than – its stablemates’.

Maria Stuarda

All in all, the Tudors Trilogy has been a pleasure, and a success. It goes on tour next week, and will visit Swansea, Oxford, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Llandudno, and Southampton. Though it’s certainly worth seeing all three operas, if you can only make it to the one, I would recommend Roberto Devereux, for brevity, eccentricity and all out, balls-to-the-wall drama.

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One Response to ““Hoots, mon! Where’s ma heid?” – ‘Maria Stuarda’ at the WMC”

  1. emyr Iris October 6, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

    Glad that you enjoyed and that you liked the concepts. Many didn;t get it and were cruel in their criticism. I thought musically it was all terrific and the performances were superb. It will go down in history as a return to the golden era of WNO linking up with the amazing productions of the late 70s and early 80s. Better than anything in Covent Garden and at a fraction of the price
    Emyr

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