Maria Stuarda/Don Carlos, Houston Grand Opera

We live in an age when even tenors can sing coloratura, which is one reason American opera companies have aggressively taken up Donizetti’s so-called “Tudor trilogy” some 40 years after Beverly Sills not only starred in but assembled it from operas Donizetti conceived as wholly independent. The main draw of Houston’s Maria Stuarda is mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who for the first time sings the title role of a work rightly famous for its confrontation (in defiance of historical reality) between Mary Stuart and her nemesis, Elizabeth I.

Humiliated by Elizabeth, the subjugated Mary retaliates in DiDonato’s masterly delivery with due deliberation, her anger seething yet checked by the proud manner that had so irritated Elizabeth – when Mary exclaims “vil bastarda”, you know it is her considered opinion. DiDonato’s singing of the role’s florid passages is first rate, but Mary expresses herself most touchingly in elegant cantilena – as in the final scene’s choral prayer – which DiDonato sings with seamless legato and gorgeous tone. If a high note or two falls short of her standard of tonal beauty, so be it.

As Elizabeth, Katie Van Kooten shows a regal temperament and sings well, but the role needs a voice of greater weight. Eric Cutler is stylish and ardent as Leicester, the cooked-up object of both queens’ love. Kevin Newbury’s production from Minnesota Opera is serviceable and, with minimal sets by Neil Patel and period costumes by Jessica Jahn, nice to look at, but the action is often stiff and the idea of having the two queens appear intermittently as little girls doesn’t go anywhere. Especially in Act One, Patrick Summers conducts like a man in a hurry and not just due to some excessively fast tempos. The musical cuts he makes in this relatively short opera are so numerous you wonder why he was motivated to conduct it.

Appearing in tandem with Maria Stuarda is another opera based on a Schiller play, Verdi’s immortal Don Carlos in John Caird’s probing co-production for the Welsh National Opera and the Canadian Opera Company. Inquisition figures wearing classic costumes with cone-shaped hats chillingly do their dirty deeds amid a populace in contemporary dress. Singing in the original French, Tamara Wilson (Elizabeth), Scott Hendricks (Posa), Brandon Jovanovich (Carlos) and Christine Goerke (Eboli) give strong performances. Summers is more in his element here than in Maria Stuarda. Despite DiDonato’s incandescent performance, Don Carlos is the one to see.

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