Donizetti - Maria Stuarda

Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Thursday May 27 2010.

Conductor: Fabrizio Maria Carminati. Production, sets, costumes and lighting: Denis Krief. Elisabetta: Kate Aldrich. Maria Stuarda : Dimitra Theodossiou. Anna Kennedy: Patrizia Gentile. Roberto di Leicester: Shalva Mukeria. Giorgio Talbot: Mirco Palazzi. Lord Guglielmo Cecil Silvio Zanon. Orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Massimo.

If there is one compensation (other than a pittance) for the indignity of having to go to work every day, it must be having colleagues in Italy. It was thanks to mine that I found myself at the Teatro Massimo the other evening for an excellent performance of Maria Stuarda (and later at a table in a cobbled square for an excellent Sicilian dinner as well) with one exception: the costumes. I’ll explain later.

Naturally, I’d wondered beforehand how good it could be. As people who know me know, I’m not a great lover, musically speaking, of either Donizetti or, especially, Bellini (whose organ-grinder scores seem to me the worst music still regularly aired, if we leave out French musicals, the Eurovision Song Contest and so on) and a poor performance usually finds me fleeing the house at half time vowing never to hear him again. But I readily admit that, when the singers are outstanding – the main roles at least – both undeniably "work," i.e. an outstanding evening of Donizetti is an evening of exciting, first-rate opera, because there’s opera and opera and in some cases it isn’t the score alone, judged by Germanic standards, that counts.

Though the right voices are hard to find and prevalent voice types have moved on since Callas and Gencer, Sutherland, Sills and Caballé, we had just about as good a cast as you’ll get these days the other night, starting with Dmitra Theodossiou. Hers was the only name I knew well on the cast list and I was glad to have a chance to see and hear her. Having done so, I imagine she probably has diehard fans and diehard detractors but, to me, she was doing her damnedest to carry her forebears’ flame. She may not be a second Caballé, but I honestly wondered if she hadn’t studied with her (apparently not), so obviously, it seemed, she’d learnt from her. Theodossiou’s singing is passionate but controlled, carefully phrased, with a reasonable (not that Caballé was ever reasonable with it) use of excellent, “floated” pianissimo, but fearless fortissimo as well and no pusillanimous petering-out at the top – rather the opposite. Those top notes were on the verge of strident, just this side of ugly, but on this side nonetheless and, so, thrilling. She was like an echo of the past – like all echos, without quite the force of the original, but this is no time to quibble. Her acting was old school: not much moving about but a few effective gestures; and I think her presence, which was real, was along the same lines (though not as phenomenally charismatic) as Caballé’s: somehow both comfortingly (even placidly) maternal and nobly dignified. The high points of the evening were (you guessed it) her confrontation with Elisabeth, where the very moment Mary’s patience snapped and the insults started to flow was (literally, though in my case only I can feel it, no-one would actually see it happen) hair-raising, and the moving final scenes.

Now, it may be a story from English history channelled to Donizetti by Schiller, but I think we can all agree Maria Stuarda is about as Italian as operas come. You may, as part of the production concept, want to play up the Protestant v. Catholic angle and with it, less relevantly, an “Anglo-Saxon v. Latin” angle. But the problem I had with Kate Aldrich as Elisabeth was not so much her singing style, though I think it was less “idiomatic” than Theodossiou’s, to use a dubious word, but with the fact that she was costumed to look like a well-bred, bossy English governess. In this production (more later) the costumes are vaguely 1900, and Kate Aldrich’s face and figure, with her hair drawn up into a soft bun at the back, dressed in a mustard-coloured, tight-waisted amazone, could have been painted by Sargent. Queen Alexandra might have worn an outfit of the kind one afternoon while relaxing (if ever she loosened her corsets) during a hunting weekend, but my feeling is that we need a more obviously regal, more full-blooded, more monstrous sort of Elisabeth. I couldn’t even tell if the visual aspect (her little heeled bootees had me thinking of Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, not something you should be thinking of during this opera) was misleading me into imagining that Kate Aldrich’s singing was “un-Italian.” She certainly threw herself into the task. In act one I found her timbre a bit plummy and covered, though even then she let out considerable volume (though in tricky, coloratura passages, timbre and volume both take a break). But in act 2 it seemed she’d probably been reserving her voice for the slanging match, and here she found more timbre and really let rip. And her acting was impeccable: she exuded menace, hatred and spite, but in a Julie Andrews sort of way. As she is now fairly well-known for singing Carmen (with cascades of black curls, not in a prim bun) well enough to hold her own opposite the ultra-charismatic Kaufmann, not to mention doing cartwheels, I put this coolness down to the director and his costumes, not her.

The Georgian tenor Shalva Mukeria was the kind we aren’t allowed to hear in Paris because he’d be considered vulgar, and since he was costumed like an ageing matinee idol in a dark blazer, white shirt and cravat, when the block of set he was standing on slid aside with him at its prow, he looked like a Sunday sailor preening on the deck of his yacht (and not a bit like Robert Dudley). Just as Dmitra Theodossiou seemed to hark back to better days (in Donizetti singing, I mean), so Mukeria seemed to represent a late graduate from the Del Monaco school, at least in terms of bulldozing determination, his voice itself being brighter, you might almost say shriller, than the latter’s. It was the kind of voice that sounds perilous and likely to go awry on the top notes, but it didn’t. So, not an elegant tenor but an efficacious one, as the French say - though they probably wouldn’t like him a much as I did: I was enjoying my Palermo evening out after a week in Rome and Calabria, so he seemed just right to me.

Mirco Palazzi, though he didn’t have so much to do, was a very interesting bass (and very natty-looking in his top-to-toe Jesuit black) with surprisingly clear, articulate, in-tune bottom notes, down in the Sarastro basement area. Zanon was less reliable, though mostly so, as Cecil. Patrizia Gentile was less audible and sometimes scarcely audible at all as Anna, but that hardly matters.

The orchestra had, in a way, the great merit, in Donizetti, of not drawing attention to itself; in the excellent acoustics of the vast (and dilapidated) all-wooden theatre, they gave us a pleasantly warm, round sound, not the brash and almost rudely in-your-face Donizetti we sometimes get (although I do think both he and Bellini need to be roughed up and bustled along a bit to avoid boredom). The chorus actually got the loudest cheers, and though we might assume their clans were in the audience, they deserved them.

If Elisabeth had been costumed, not as Queen Alexandra putting her feet up, but as Queen Alexandra in full British Empire regalia, giving that upstart photographer a steely glance signifying “get on with it, young man,” and Mary in something more Parisian along the same lines, the production would have been perfect.

I had initial misgivings as the gauze bearing royal standards rose to reveal a massive set occupying much of the stage; I thought we were going to have another staging in which the singers were confined awkwardly to a little space, as in Don Quichotte in Brussels. But the set turned out to be very ingeniously used, with the help in particular of ingenious and often simply beautiful lighting. Facing us was a steeply-raked labyrinth, filling all the space, of grey marble walls, some higher than others. The symbolism was obvious, and characters moved around it casting nervous glances to one side or the other and hiding behind walls: a climate of fear, distrust and terror no doubt true to the period and something like modern Iran, I should think.

For the forest scene, the labyrinth walls lowered all to the same, waist-high level and clever lighting turned them green: hedges, like Hampton Court. For Mary’s prison cell, they split apart to reveal their wooden underpinning. For the chorus of lamentations and Mary’s preparations to die, the lighting dimmed, the marble turned dark grey and lo and behold, before us was a graveyard filled with tombstones. For the end, they turned red. It was as simple and effective as that. And as, by the end, Mary had at last swapped her frumpish skirt, blouse and shawl for a proper, white, trained gown, stole and jewels, she looked at last like a diva and gave us a good old-fashioned moment of operatic magic.

The evening opened (as it would in Milan two nights later, to a less polite reception) with ten minutes of dignified protest by young opera employees with banners on the stage, with the reading, in Italian and, more briefly, in English, of a protest against Italian government cuts in the cultural area. But sitting there, looking around me, I wondered who these young people’s audience would be in twenty year’s time. As I’m now well over fifty I think I can say it: the Palermo audience is almost entirely made up of the elderly: the retired bourgeoisie, with box upon box of old ladies. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite such a striking absence (if you can see an absence) of young people in an opera house. It’s a worrying phenomenon.

At the end, I also wondered why the applause was so restrained, considering the evening had been so unexpectedly (in today’s bel canto context: personally I can’t bring myself to consider Renée Fleming a bel canto star) good. But most of the people there were in their prime in the days of Callas and Gencer, Sutherland, Sills and Caballé. That may explain it.

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