In general, I’m not a fan of the bel canto repertoire. The musical language is heavily simplified (lots of oom-pah-pahing in the orchestra), the arias sometimes sound like copies of each other, and the plots can get bogged down by their own historical weight. So, I went into Maria Stuarda expecting to enjoy it, but only mildly. It’s one of Donizetti’s B-list operas (the A-listers being Lucia, Don Pasquale, and La fille du regiment) and mostly treated as a vehicle for dueling divas.
To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. I felt, for the first time, that I understood what people like about this repertoire. Turns out that, when the divas are grand and glorious enough, being a diva vehicle is one of the best things an opera can be.
Serena Farnocchia has a big, beautiful sumptuous voice and she manipulates it expertly, delivering full-throated high notes and sustained pianissimo phrases as required. Her performance is the main reason to see this. Not quite as mind-blowing but still first class is Alexandrina Pedatchanska, whose voice is brighter and harder-edged, but who is entirely convincing as Queen Elizabeth I. Their performances both crackle and sizzle, and when they take the stage, following the plot and keeping up with the surtitles comes second to reveling in their presence.
Many critics (as you can see below) took issue with the sets and direction. I enjoyed the postmodern theatre-within-a-theatre setting and the stylized Tudor costumes, although the wooden drawbridges did look rather unstable. But I mostly stopped caring about those things – I was really only interested in listening to these women sing.
Toronto Star: “The magnetic power of opera comes from great music, searing drama and purposeful direction. All are present and accounted for. Prepare to be dazzled.”
Globe and Mail: “For all Donizetti’s humdrum manufacture, big-guitar orchestral accompaniments and assembly-line melodies, he does provide each of his five leading characters with juicy vocal opportunities which only require singers capable of taking them.The strength of the Canadian Opera Company’s current production is that its directors have realized this and have engaged five dandy singers – not a weak or a poorly cast one among them.”
NOW Magazine: “The COC production is the first fully staged Canadian production of Maria Stuarda; too bad all the show’s elements aren’t equally strong.”
Eye Weekly: “The COC has neglected the bel canto repertoire, to which Maria Stuarda belongs, for far too long. Let’s hope that, in future, the company can find directors able to make these operas not merely showcases for vocal acrobatics but fully engaging stories as well. ”
Canoe JAM!: “It’s easy to forgive opera for being historically suspect, but only its superb music makes it possible to forgive it, albeit somewhat grudgingly, for being sloppy theatre.”
Opera Toronto: “There is a great potential for staging this opera but the production efforts were spread thin instead of focusing on the core actors in this drama. The attempt at Shakespearean theatre did not convey an intelligible message, if any. The lack of coordination in volume between the stage and the pit from time to time suffocated the voices of the singers.”
Halton Arts Review: “The staging was simple and effective, the acting excellent and well detailed, and the music was a joy to hear”
ConcertoNet.com: “The COC’s production of Maria Stuarda, borrowed from Dallas Opera, is both visually and musically a class act.”
James Karas Reviews: “Director Stephen Lawless made the singers lounge on the steps of the raised stage a bit too often, I thought. But this is bel canto and you have to let the singers get their notes out instead of worrying about plot and such minutiae as acting.”
Leonard Turnevicius: “Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Elisabetta and Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia were quite effective as Elisabetta and Maria respectively.”