Review: Jaho, Aldrich Triumph in San Diego Opera “Maria Stuarda” – February 16, 2008

The San Diego Opera premiere of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” will be considered a milestone in the performance history of this relatively unknown masterpiece of Italian opera. It was the California debut of Albanian singer Ermonela Jaho, already familiar to American audiences in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit. She is scheduled to alternate performances of Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” with Anna Netrebko in July, 2009 at the San Francisco Opera, and a debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera is expected in the future also.

[Below: Ermonela Jaho as Maria Stuarda; edited  image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Jaho, who recently sang Maria Stuarda at the Berlin Staatsoper, was, in fact, the only member of the cast to have sung in the opera previously. For all the others – Kate Aldrich (Elisabetta), Yeghishe Manucharyan (Leicester), Reinhard Hagen (Talbot), Andrew Greenan (Lord Cecil) and Susana Poretsky (Anna) – their role debuts took place this evening.

Without exception, the entire cast was impressive and augurs well that the expansion of interest in the Donizetti operas beyond “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “L’Elisir d’Amore” will continue for another generation.

Of particular note is the performance’s seconda donna – Kate Aldrich as Queen Elizabeth. Her reputation in California was established by bravura performances in the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen” when it was produced by San Francisco Opera in December, 2006 (alternating Carmens with Hadar Halevy).

Aldrich proved an amazing Elisabetta. It is a great role for a mezzo with a command of coloratura and an ability to project all of the passion, doubt, fear, jealousy, rage and inner strength of the operatic character that Donizetti and his precocious adolescent librettist Giuseppe Bardari (at an age that is below the 21st century age of consent in California) distilled from Friedrich Schiller’s play “Mary Stuart”.

Donizetti and Bardari succeed – better than any other 19th century opera – in portraying a person who actually lived. The more famous 19th century docu-operas – Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and Verdi’s “Don Carlos” – provide glimpses of people in whom, respectively, Pushkin and Schiller found interesting subjects for their literary endeavors. But all of these characters – even Philip II – seem remote and inaccessible to us, except in their manifestations in the world of opera.

[Below: Elisabetta (Kate Aldrich) descends her throne; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph courtesy of the San Diego Opera]

But Queen Elizabeth is someone of whom most opera goers would have a reasonable grasp. We have contemporaneous portraits of her, abundant documentation of her life, and a whole iconography derived from performances by Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren and their contemporaries and predecessors from the worlds of film and television.

Thus, one must add to the elements that the performance of any role requires – learning the music, learning the words, understanding the character, learning the stage direction – the added element of meeting the expectations of audiences that KNOW how Elizabeth should look and act.

Elisabetta appears in all three acts, whereas Mary is absent for the entire first act. Elizabeth is the focus of attention in any scene in which she appears, and has much more than a commensurate share of the coloratura fireworks expected of sopranos and mezzos in bel canto operas. For a performance of this opera to be deemed successful, it takes more than a star turn from the title role soprano to pull it off.

Aldrich indeed proved highly successful in developing a portrait of Elizabeth that clearly delighted the audience. Her moods were mercurial. She could be affectionate and sulking with Manucharyan’s Leicester, bewildered and irresolute with Greenan’s Cecil, malicious and defiant with Jaho’s Mary.

[Below: Queen Elisabetta (Kate Aldrich) listens attentively to the advice of the Earl of Leicester (Yeghishe Manucharyan) and Lord Cecil (Andrew Greenan); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

By the time of the Second Act confrontation of the queens (the scene in Schiller’s play that caused Donizetti to be interested in the subject matter), Aldrich has created obvious rapport with the San Diego audience.

When the super-titles begin to hint at the string of insults that Jaho’s Mary will hurl at her – that her mother Ann Boleyn was not truly Henry VIII’s legitimate wife – you could hear gasps of horror throughout the San Diego Civic Theatre. By the time Mary declaims that Elizabeth is a “vile bastard”, the audience has joined Leicester and Talbot in their shock that this meeting – carefully arranged as a opportunity for reconciliation between the two cousins – has not gone well.

Of course, if a first rate Elisabetta is a necessary component of a successful “Maria Stuarda”, it is not a show that the Elisabetta can carry, absent a great Maria Stuarda. Jaho, in her American role debut, demonstrated how Stuarda should be performed and received a standing ovation for her efforts.

Possessing a lirico-spinto voice of great beauty, and a luscious vibrato always impeccably in control, Jaho’s voice fits the requirements of the opera’s title role, with its abundant legato passages, chromatic runs, and brief coloratura bouts. Jaho’s ability to produce sustained piannissimi (which Conductor Edoardo Mueller affectionately indulged) invites comparisons with the vocal skills of Montserrat Caballe.

Jaho’s repertory, like her Maria Stuarda predecessors Caballe and Leyla Gencer, encompasses both Donizetti roles and heavier roles in operas by Verdi, Puccini and Bizet. But she also brought physical beauty (an attribute associated with the historical Mary) and acting skills.

Jaho is an extraordinary singer, and one of whom the wider world should take notice. It is an accident that she made her San Diego Opera debut in this role. She took on the role at the Berlin Staatsoper in November, 2007 and attracted the interest of visiting San Diego Opera General Director Ian Campbell who was sufficiently impressed to begin negotiations for a future role in San Diego.

Then Angela Gilbert, the South African soprano who was scheduled to perform all four performances in the title role was felled with a stomach flu. This is a particularly nasty ailment for an opera singer, because its associated nausea can put dangerous stress on one’s vocal cords, which often need several days rest even after other flu symptoms are gone. In consultation with Gilbert, Campbell was able to ascertain Jaho’s availability for the several days in February needed for the opera’s dress rehearsal and first performance, and he persuaded her to make her San Diego Opera debut several years earlier than expected.

The three male principals were noteworthy. Leicester is a meaty part with some of the most beautiful and interesting music Donizetti wrote for the tenor voice. Manucharyan’s Leicester confirmed another promising leggiero tenor career.

[Below: Leicester (Yeghishe Manucharyan, front) expresses his feelings as Talbot (Reinhard Hagen) looks on; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Our review of San Diego Opera’s recent production of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” had praised the quality of the men cast in the minnesinger roles. Two of the minnesingers, Reinhard Hagen (the Landgraf Hermann) and Andrew Greenan (Biterolf), with bass-baritone voices comfortable singing Wagner’s music, provided richness and profundity to the Donizetti roles of Talbot and Cecil. They demonstrated that a properly trained Wagnerian can sing bel canto as well.

Utilizing such talents as Hagen and Greenan (not even to speak of the luxury of assigning Susana Poretsky the relatively small role of Anna, Maria’s faithful lady-in-waiting) suggests that San Diego Opera is helping to raise the opera performance bar internationally, by its “deep casting” of the operas it mounts.

The stage direction of Andrew Sinclair was invariably tasteful and logical. One always had the sense that each performer was engaged in an activity called for by the words they are singing. Even the Fotheringay concertato – the sextet (written a year before the famous ensemble in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and foreshadowing the Lucia sextet’s music in places) was effectively staged.

Edoardo Mueller always demonstrates a command of the Italian repertory worthy of the trust San Diego Opera and other companies place in this veteran conductor. Those of us who were raised on Conductor Richard Bonynge’s approach to integrating the somewhat different 1834 and 1835 versions of the opera for his wife Joan Sutherland, will note with interest Mueller’s choice of the opera’s original prelude and the welcome restoration of several measures that Bonynge cut in Sutherland’s 1971 performances at San Francisco Opera.

The scene of confrontation between Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots, as mentioned above, attracted Donizetti’s interest in adapting Schiller’s five act play to the operatic stage. Schiller’s play has 20 characters, of whom only six make it into the opera. Several plot-lines disappear, and a Donizetti character will sometimes absorb lines and actions from another character in the play. I would argue that the result is not only a more economical plot, but one that more likely represents the thoughts and feelings of the historical characters that are portrayed in the opera than their counterparts in the Schiller play.

What we are left with is a first act in which Talbot and Leicester work to persuade a reluctant Elizabeth (counseled by a disapproving Cecil) to agree to an “accidental” meeting between the Queens to take place on a hunting trip the next day. For affairs of state, Cecil wants Mary executed; for reasons of compassion, Leicester and Talbot want her pardoned.

In the second act, Mary is convinced by Leicester that this accidental meeting will provide an opportunity for her to persuade Elizabeth to free her from imprisonment. When they do meet, and it becomes clear that Elizabeth will do no such thing, Mary flies into a rage, and insults Elizabeth, the one person whose signature is required if Mary is to be executed. In the Third Act, Elizabeth is still reluctant to sign Mary’s death warrant, which Cecil persuades her finally to do. In the final scenes, Mary is reconciled to her fate, confesses her sins, forgives her enemies, and goes to the block.

Often much is made of the fact that the queens actually never met, even though they corresponded, and that much of Schiller’s play is fiction. But the Donizetti opera has distilled the spirit of the times and the emotional state of the historical characters. Indeed, Elizabeth vacillated for months before signing Mary’s death warrant, then disavowed that she had authorized its transmission to the proper authorities. Mary did charm Talbot and Leicester. Whether or not Mary ever personally used the insulting language towards Elizabeth, her relatives in France, and allies in the Vatican and English underground did so openly. Mary indeed did forgive her enemies.

And it is the display of raw emotion that makes this opera so different from the traditions of Italian opera up to that time. My own belief is that Donizetti engaged a boy as his librettist because Bardari could not possibly have had deep knowledge of the intricate rules for the word rhyming patterns and the formulaic aria structures that Italian operas were expected to have in those times.

If Donizetti had had a famous librettist (the greatest of whom received much higher pay than opera composers at that time), he would not have gotten the words he wished to set into music. Working with Bardari, he created the words that he wanted, pushing Italian opera into becoming the dramatic experience that the popular Italian opera warhorses of Verdi, Puccini and a few of their contemporaries exemplify. His own great dramatic work in that tradition, “Lucia di Lammermoor”, was one of his very next projects.

The drama created by Donizetti and Bardari proved too much for the 1834 dress rehearsal in Naples. Giuseppina Ronzi (Maria) and Anna del Sere (Elisabetta) launched into physical combat, with an injured del Sere carried off the premises. Up until then, the Neapolitan censors had not objected to the opera. The brouhaha around the divas’ shoving match and the sudden awareness of the Queen of Naples of the news of a theatrical portrayal of her ancestress, the Queen of Scots, required the premiere’s cancellation and the opera’s recomposition as something happening in midaeval Florence.

In fact, it has only been since the 1960s that “Maria Stuarda” has been performed consistently. Leyla Gencer starred in the first 20th century revival. [William’s note – Robert Kawka was able to cite two performances by lesser known artists that occurred before Gencer’s, but Gencer’s adoption of the role proved to be a major boost to the opera’s fortunes.  See the extended discussion below.]

Joan Sutherland was an early champion, taking part in the American stage premiere in 1971 at the San Francisco Opera with Huguette Tourangeau as Elisabetta and Stuart Burrows as Leicester, in a production by Pier Luigi Pizzi, that I attended.

At the same time Tito Capobianco conceived the idea of presenting three of Donizetti’s four operas about members of the Tudor royal families as a Tudor trilogy to be presented at the New York City Opera. He convinced Beverly Sills to perform the prima donna role in all three operas – “Anna Bolena”, “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux”. The sets were developed by Ming Cho Lee and the costumes by Jose Varona.

[Below: the cast of “Maria Stuarda” in Ming Cho Lee’s sets; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Ming Cho Lee created a stylized unit set of vertical posts that connect with horizontal structures, backdrops and furnishings to create the different scenes – Elizabeth’s court, the fenced park at Fotheringay Castle where Mary is to meet Elizabeth, the English Queen’s private office, the spacious room that constitutes Mary’s private chambers, and the main Fotheringay room where the executioner’s block has been set up.

The serviceable 1972 Ming Cho Lee sets, last seen in California in 1982 on one of the tours that New York City Opera used to make to Los Angeles, were borrowed for the San Diego Opera production. (Varona’s elaborate, and very expensive costumes, which Beverly Sills loved to wear when performing in these very sets – alas! – were consumed in a devastating New York City Opera fire. The costumes seen here are from the Dallas Opera.)

I personally have had the experience of seeing the major prima donne – Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills and Montserrat Caballe – associated with the “Donizetti Revival” of the late 20th century in live performances of Donizetti operas. Although each performance was memorable and the experiences treasured, those who believe the Golden Age of Donizetti performances is in the past are mistaken. San Diego Opera proved that the we have among us Donizetti singers who can match these legendary voices. No one who has the chance to see one of the remaining three performances of this production should pass up that opportunity.

William’s Notes: This is the fourth in a series of performance reviews of Donizetti operas, that includes productions in Paris, Zurich and Houston.  For discussions of past and future reviews, see: In Quest of Donizetti – A 2007-08 Itinerary and In Quest of Donizetti – A 2008-09 Itinerary.