Maria Stuarda, Donizetti’s ultra-Italian ode to tragic British history as filtered through the Germanic vision of Friedrich Schiller, was first performed in Milan in 1835, and generally ignored soon thereafter. It returned to favour in the mid-20th century, however, and New York savoured it, thanks to Beverly Sills at the City Opera, in 1972. The belated Met premiere took place on New Year’s Eve.
For most impractical purposes David McVicar has (mis)directed the piece as a quirky ode to a very odd couple. Although much of her music is elegant and even graceful, Queen Elizabeth I (Elisabetta) is made to stagger and swagger awkwardly about the stage. Faithfully enacted by Elza van den Heever, she lurches and struts, stumbles and smirks nonstop. Her vocalism, though generous and apparently fearless, tends to shrillness at the top and breathiness at the bottom. Pathos teeters on the brink of caricature.
By contrast, McVicar makes Mary Stuart (Stuarda) seem even more of a saintly martyr than tradition might dictate. She personifies life-size modesty, sweetness and purity. Her gestures remain small, her agonies internal. Joyce DiDonato makes her plight all the more compelling because, unlike her royal adversary, she resists excess. Most important, she treats the complex bel-canto flights as emotional expressions, never merely as bravura filigree. This is an exquisitely proportioned, remarkably sensitive performance.
Ultimately, McVicar reduces the tragedia lirica to a period pageant framing star turns. John Macfarlane decorates the rituals primitively, with inconsistently abstract sets and colour-coded costumes.
Although the sparring queens dominate the proceedings, for better and worse, the secondary singers do what they can. Despite obvious stress, Matthew Polenzani copes manfully with the lofty utterances of Leicester. Matthew Rose exudes basso dignity as Talbot. Joshua Hopkins (Cecil) and Maria Zifchak (Anna) offer sympathetic support.
Maurizio Benini, the conductor, provides timid, tepid accompaniment. He also has trouble keeping his sometimes ragged orchestra and sometimes harried singers on the same beat. He staunches lyrical blood, mutes dramatic thunder. Once again, primary problems begin, and end, in the pit.