University Opera, "Maria Stuarda"
Friday evening the 23rd, we made a flying trip to Madison to see the
University Opera production of "Maria Stuarda", by Gaetano Donizetti.
This is one of a number of operas written about the last days of the
doomed "Queen of Scots", but the only one that is still performed very
Donizetti's beautiful bel canto music illuminates the fanciful libretto
by Giuseppi Bardari, (loosely based on the play by Friedrich von
Schiller) which centers around a supposed face-to-face meeting between
Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth I, arranged by the Earl of Leicester. In
the opera, Elizabeth is pining for Leicester, while Leicester's love for
the charismatic Maria is a poorly concealed secret. Between Elizabeth's
jealousy, and Maria's fear of Elizabeth and resentment of her treatment,
the meeting goes badly. Maria tries to follow Leicester's advice and
humble herself before Elizabeth, but Elizabeth' gloating so enrages her
that she explodes, denouncing the Queen as the illegitimate daughter of
the "whore" Boleyn. The act ends with everyone knowing that a line has
been crossed, and the words spoken were fatal.
In the second act, Cecil, citing the many plots against Elizabeth
centering around Maria, counsels her to sign the death warrant.
Elizabeth does so, and furthermore orders that Leicester must be the
Crown's official witness to the execution. After Cecil delivers the
warrant to Maria, Talbot (Earl of Shrewsbury), prays with Maria,
gradually converting her rage to resignation, setting up the final scene
where Maria forgives Elizabeth and goes to the block in a state of
The two leads were really excellent. We had heard Emily Birsan (Maria)
in the title role of last spring's "Armida," and she goes from strength
to strength. Celeste Fraser, who sang the role of Elizabeth, was also
marvelous. Perhaps it was the red wig, but she reminded me of a young
Beverly Sills, herself a famous interpreter of Donizetti. Both women
sang with control, expression, and power, and hit their high notes dead
on every time. They were ably supported by the chorus, and by John
Arnold as Talbot and Justin Niehoff Smith as Cecil. Regrettably, the
weakest member of the cast was J. Adam Shelton in the role of Leicester,
who was notably wobbly in the first scene, but warmed up quickly.
Although not his fault, it also didn't help that Leicester was afflicted
with the worst costume in an otherwise nicely garbed show, getting an
ugly outfit with a notably unflatteringly cut doublet.
As befit the Queen, Elizabeth had a beautiful gown of dark gold, which
was interestingly altered with different ruffs, sleeves, hats, and other
accessories from scene to scene. For most of the performance Maria
wears a simpler gown also of a gold tint, but much paler and in a
slightly tarnished tone, which suggested her status relative to the
Queen her cousin. For the final scene, Maria wore a dark red gown, which
echoed the red chemise the real Mary actually wore to her execution.
The basic set served the production well, and the orchestra, conducted
by James Smith, was flawless. All in all a very fine production of a
rarely seen opera which we were glad to have been able to enjoy.