Donizetti: Maria Stuarda / Carminati, Ganassi, Bros, Caria, Teatro La Fenice

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A distinguished cast in a strong production.

The remarkable history of this opera includes the infamous fisticuffs at the very first orchestral rehearsal. The original director overlooked the simmering animosity between his leading ladies. Maria Stuarda calls her rival queen, Elizabetta, a ‘vile bastard’ and such was the ferocity of delivery by Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, as Maria, that Anna del Serre as Elizabetta, responded with fists and hair-pulling. De Begnis hit back with such force that Anna del Serre departed the theatre. Meanwhile, the plot came to the ears of the King who banned it: too close to home for comfort with his wife descended from Maria Stuarda.
It almost disappeared off the operatic radar until performed after Donizetti’s death. Then it languished for a century or so until a 1958 revival: but its real renaissance came twenty years after that. “The discovery of the autograph in a Swedish collection in 1987 has made possible the preparation of an authentic edition” (A. Holden, ed. The New Penguin Opera Guide, 2001 p.235). Since when, it has taken its regular rightful place in the repertoire.
The apocryphal confrontation of the two queens is played here with dramatic intensity. Sonia Ganassi (Elizabetta) portrays the hatred and contempt for Maria Stuarda with towering vocal passion. Fiorenza Cedolins (Maria) responds initially with supplication followed by vocal and facial fireworks of which she is such a remarkable exponent.
The one-set-fits-all scenes is a stage-filling labyrinth as shown on the DVD cover above. It is not a maze: the characters are not in a puzzle but in roles where their actions are circumscribed by their offices of state. Although the opera’s events are from 1587, this production is timeless in set and costumes. Together with direction and lighting, all by Denis Krief, they provide complementary forces that leave the audience free to concentrate on voices and plot.
The performance by Ganassi is a tour de force. She manifests remarkable vocal strength throughout her vocal range. She misses not a word, with diction, dynamics and colouring second to none. It seems invidious to select any specific aria but Quella vita a me funesta (tr. 22), when about to sign the death warrant, exhibits all that is glorious about her vocal and acting strengths. From her entrance aria, with middle-note-hitting, leaps and vocal contrasts to her dismissal of her rival queen, she exhibits her consummate stage presence.
No less forceful is Cedolins as Maria Stuarda. A natural spitfire who can leap around her upper tessitura with agility at forte but who can rein back to piano to send a melting note across stage, pit and auditorium. Although not as strong in her chest voice, she remains totally note and line focused. Her runs and trills are an aural joy. From her wistful O nube! (tr. 12) through vocal fireworks of vitriol to her moving acceptance of fate in Quando di luce rosea (tr. 27), Cedolins displays strong colouring and dynamics.
José Bros (Leicester) brings to the role his distinctive timbre with smouldering passion and dramatic intensity. His diction many would do well to emulate - no need on this DVD though - as well as his strongly coloured and stage encompassing sound. He is the master of the smooth legato. This is a mature Leicester, not dashing around the stage, but relying on vocal gravitas to project his character.
Together Ganassi and Bros have the power, tone, dynamic variation and breath control to complement each other. She leads and her courtier follows. Now she deludes herself in imagining his love for her but is then persuaded to meet her rival from Scotland.
Thus it is also with the Maria Stuarda of Cedolins. Bros is the mature courtier/lover endeavouring to keep her alive by persuading her to throw herself on English regal mercy: a serious error of judgement over-looking that royal all-consuming hatred of her rival from Scotland. The Bros/Cedolins duet Da tutti abbandonata (tr. 15) has everything: dynamics in spades, each soaring above the other in turn, vocal colouring and, as expected facial acting by Cedolins shown well in camera close-ups.
Mirco Palazzi is a quite excellent Talbot - not revealing himself late as a priest in this production, but a priest from the start. His superb bass-deep colouring and ringing tone brings this role much more to the fore. He is the perfect foil for the tenor of Bros and the soprano of Cedolins. This is a convincing priest and confidant.
Marco Caria is the unenviable and possibly unloved Cecil, persuading one queen to execute another. A hint of strain at forte, nevertheless very persuasive and acting well with Ganassi in that restless death warrant signature scene. As the conveyor of the warrant he relaxes into the hypocrisy of sadness that Caria carries well with evenness of tone and perfect diction.
Pervin Chakar sings the small but important role of Anna. Small, with little opportunity to shine solo, but important, in her contribution to the ensembles. Chakar has a ringing soprano that can be heard clearly in the excellently delivered and balanced ensembles.
Maestro Carminati has other productions of this opera to his credit. Here there is a sporadic lack of co-ordination of his forces: occasionally with timing but more frequently allowing the orchestra to equal and not complement the events on stage. The chorus were not on their best form: no perception of involvement in the unfolding plot and, without the subtitles, difficult to follow.
The camera-work is unhurried, from full stage to close-up. Plenty of time to appreciate Krief’s use of colours, from Ganassi’s yellow costume of jealousy to Cedolins bold red jacket and skirt - the scarlet woman or perhaps foretelling her bloody end. In this production, she meets her end in a white strapless evening dress and drape: virgin innocence possibly, but the opposite of the original stage direction for black.
The lighting, with some equally effective colours, makes a significant but welcome contribution. The labyrinth uprights and/or tops are suffused with dramatic varying colours, matching scene and mood. This set, with its straight lines, provides the perfect tool for shot amalgamation showing figures in close proximity on screen when in reality they are apart on the stage. And the superimposing of the head and shoulders of Cedolins on a shot of the whole stage in the final scene is a striking reminder of her overarching presence. Such camera-work is the more effective for its sparing use.
Taken overall this is an excellent DVD. But if you prefer a production in sixteenth century costumes, with equally strong queens - Mariella Devia and Anna Caterina Antonacci - and a dashing young Leicester - Franceso Meli - then try Arthaus Musik 101361. Torches for atmospheric illumination appear against a background of prison bars various, ramps and platforms to give different perspectives. There’s heightened tension in the last scene with the block and executioner on-stage and the chorus closer to their beloved, doomed, queen. Whereas orchestra and chorus are much tauter, for me, the other soloists are not so strong and the ensembles did not balance as well.
So, two seriously good DVDs with personal preference for queens, supporting roles, and setting being the deciding factors. Difficult: but on balance I prefer the DVD of this review with its thought-provoking aspects, overall vocal balances and because the production is so different, not detracting from, but complementing, plot and sound.

-- Robert McKechnie, MusicWeb International 

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 704208

  • UPC: 814337010423

  • Label: C Major

  • Composer: Gaetano Donizetti

  • Conductor: Fabrizio Maria Carminati

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Venice Teatro la Fenice Chorus, Venice Teatro la Fenice Orchestra

  • Performer: Fiorenza Cedolins, José Bros, Marco Caria, Marco Palazzi, Sonia Ganassi