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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Maria Stuarda - lyric tragedy in three acts (1834) [138:00]
Elisabetta, Elisabeth the first of England - Anna Caterina Antonacci (mezzo); Maria Stuarda, Mary, Queen of Scots - Mariella Devia (soprano); Roberto, Count of Leicester - Francesco Meli (tenor); Giorgio Talbot - Simone Alberghini (bass-baritone); Lord Guglielmo Cecil - Pietro Terranova (baritone); Anna, Maria’s companion – Paola Gardina (soprano)
La Scala Chorus and Orchestra/Antonino Fogliani
Stage direction, set design and costumes: Pier Luigi Pizzi
rec. live, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, January 2008
Bonus: Maria Stuarda backstage [13:00]
Picture format: NTSC 16:9. Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1. Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Menu language, English. Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish and Italian
Performed in the Critical Edition by Anders Wiklund
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101361 [138:00 + 13:00]


Experience Classicsonline

The lot of an opera composer in the first half of the nineteenth century in Italy was not a particularly happy one. To earn a half decent living he would have to compose at least three new works each year for which he would earn significantly less than the principal singers, particularly the divas of the day. He might earn a little extra by presenting revivals with some new music. He had no recourse to royalties from the operas he had composed, as these became the property of the commissioning impresario. Regularity of commissions from impresarios depended on his reputation, which in turn depended on the success of previous compositions. Consequently many composers of the period sought a wealthy patron or an academic or teaching position or even a church post to keep the wolf from the door.

Then there were the problems surrounding the subject of the libretto and getting a suitable poet to set the verses. Even when a subject had been agreed with the librettist there was the dominant local influence of the censor. Even Verdi, at the height of his fame as late as 1858 had censor trouble in Naples with Un Ballo in Maschera when the city Chief of Police ruled that the opera text would have to be re-written in its entirety to preclude any dancing on stage and the murder must be off-stage. Verdi by that time had control of and royalties from his operas and was a rich man. He simply removed himself and his opera from Naples to the more sympathetic north Italy venue of Rome. Even in this more liberal environment the assassination of a monarch on stage was too much. Only after some prevarication did the Roman censors agree to accept the principles of the plot and the action and then only with the caveat that the location was removed from Europe to North America at the time of the English domination, with the King becoming a mere Count!

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. Of his previous forty-five or so operas at that date, nearly half had been composed for Naples. He had returned there early in 1834 with a contract to write one serious opera each year for the Royal Theatre, the San Carlo, as well as having an invitation from Rossini to write for the Théâtre Italien in Paris. Things began looking up for him even more when, in June, by command of the King of Naples, he was appointed professor at the Royal College of Music in Naples.

The renowned librettist Romani failed to come up with a libretto for the contracted opera, so Donizetti turned to a young student Giuseppe Bardari who converted Schiller’s play. During rehearsals in September the confrontations in the plot between the Queens Mary and Elisabeth must have reached the Royal Palace where Queen Christina, wife of King Ferdinand of Naples, and a descendant of Mary Stuart objected. The King acted as censor and banned the new opera. Donizetti was not in a strong position to resist when required to set the music to another text. The safer subject chosen was related to the strife between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in pre-renaissance Florence. Donizetti composed some new music and titled the work Buondelmonte. Not unexpectedly it was not a resounding success. Donizetti withdrew it after its Naples performances, determined to have Maria Stuarda performed somewhere in the form he had originally planned. In the interim he composed Gemma di Vergy for Milan, Marino Faliero for Paris and Lucia di Lamermoor for Naples. Maria Stuarda finally reached the stage at La Scala in December 1835 where after a mere six performances it was withdrawn on the instructions of the Milanese censors. Maria Stuarda did not reach Naples in its original form until 1865 when both composer and Bourbon rulers were gone and after which it disappeared until revived in 1958 in Bergamo, Donizetti’s hometown. In the 1970s the likes of Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Leyla Gencer and Beverley Sills took up the title role ensuring its future in opera houses in Italy and elsewhere. Significant at this time was a production by Giorgio de Home Lullo for the Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1967 featuring Leyla Gencer and Shirley Verrett. The set design and costumes for that production were by Pier Luigi Pizzi, director, set designer and costume designer at this La Scala in production in 2008.

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. Whilst the manuscript of Maria Stuarda is lost several non-autograph manuscripts exist as do ten pieces from Buondelmonte and ten from Milan of Maria Stuarda. This performance of Anders Wiklund’s Critical Edition, is given in two acts. The original act two, the Fotheringay Scene and the meeting between the Queens is given as scenes 6 (Chs 14-16), 7 (CHs. 17-19) and scene 8 (CHs. 20-23) of act one.

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 bastards, 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.

Robert J Farr


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