This Saturday at Grass Valley’s Del Oro Theatre, Sierra Theaters presents Gaetano Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” as the latest offering of The Met Opera Live in HD.
Donizetti’s setting of the tragic tale of Mary, Queen of Scots, contains delightful surprises and rapturous singing. But history, it isn’t.
Well, maybe a little bit.
Tudor buffs — especially British ones — may be surprised at the sympathetic treatment the opera gives to the doomed Scottish Queen and the less-than-positive portrait of Elizabeth I, Good Queen Bess. Catholic Italy had always placed its sympathies firmly on the side of the martyred Scot and viewed Elizabeth, as the libretto has it, as the “vil bastarda” (“vile bastard”) of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn, whose marriage was not recognized by the Holy Roman Church. The pope had not sanctioned Henry’s divorce from first wife Katherine of Aragon, and thus we have the English Reformation, the Episcopal Church and this opera.
Loosely based on a play by the German poet Schiller, the opera’s libretto takes even further liberties from its source. There is a spite-filled meeting between the two monarchs: never happened. Mary has a lover in Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester: fantasy. Yes, but one should not make too much of any of this historical revisionism: It’s opera. It’s art. Its purpose is to move the audience, not be as pedantic as this current reviewer tends to be. Move one it does.
Mezzo Joyce DiDonato has been receiving rave notices as Mary. “Maria Stuarda” demonstrates with exquisite perfection the style of singing known as bel canto, “the beautiful song.” The technical demands on the singers are immense. To then add that requisite degree of truth in acting, that exhibition of feeling pertinent to the issue at hand, that’s another level of gift that is stratospheric. Ms. DiDonato seems to have it all. Referring to the difficult, florid passages with their need for tonal purity and melismatic precision, she says that “if you don’t infuse meaning into it, it can be superfluous.”
Amen to that.
Vocal pyrotechnics are never enough; the singing performer must bring the audience into the truth of the moment. This is what makes opera such a great art form. Despite the often silliness of the librettos, despite the casting of singers who are perhaps years older than the characters they must bring to life, that life can be magically manifested before us, and we are brought into its emotional reality. Enjoy the show.
John Deaderick is a local theatre instructor, director, actor, and the author of Make Sweet the Minds of Men: Early Opera and Tragic Catharsis, available at Amazon.com.