Wonderful, fantastic Joyce Di Donato!! I had heard her in Cenerentola and in La donna del lago (both Rossini), but in Maria Stuarda she raises to another level. I am used to hear Maria Stuarda sung by a soprano, so I was a bit worried about her performance, she being a mezzo, but her robust middle voice gives Mary Stuart a superior dramatic strength, making her less angel-like and more human. The first aria was my main worry, because it fits very nicely a lyric high soprano, with pure “filati” sounds (a voice different from Ms. Di Donato’s), but she brought tears in my eyes. Perfect, there is no other word. The melancholy of the aria was perfect, the legato was perfect, the coloratura of the cabaletta was perfect. Yes, ok, it was the Malibran version, it was a half tone lower, there were no super-high notes, but I cried, and my neighbour cried as well, even if he was half-autistic (I gave him a kleenex).
The direction was a bit absurd: Elizabeth and Mary in period costumes, and everybody else in modern clothes, and also modern settings. The result was a little schizophrenic, even if Elizabeth’s costume was spectacular. 12 kilos worth of costume. I didn’t mind the weird scene, but the audience booed the directors (it was the premiere, so they came out on stage).
The orchestra was superb, as usual, and the direction of Bertrand de Billy was taking very good care of the singers. Very lively.
Carmen Giannattasio was singing Elisabetta (Elizabeth); she is a soprano with a beautiful voice, not very strong, perfect coloratura. She’s a great actress, and managed to convey Elizabeth’s torment: an all-powerful ruler who ultimately cannot do anything she wants. In love with Leicester, he doesn’t love her back, because he loves Mary Stuart, and Elizabeth can’t do anything about it. She doesn’t want to kill Mary, she’s her cousin, after all, and killing a legitimate daughter of the Tudors seems in exceedingly bad taste. But she must sentence her to death. (She’s very much an “Amneris” characters, and I have a soft spot for Amneris-like women.) In the first scene she dominated the stage and received great acclaim.
The tenor, the Count of Leicester, loved by both queens, was Ismael Jordi; he has a strong voice, an amazing projection, good high notes and great coloratura, but his voice is totally set in the nose. Soooooo nasal. He’s great, but I just don’t like his timbre.
The confrontation scene between the two queens, where they all but rip off each other’s hair, was of course the clou of the opera. In this scene you can appreciate having a mezzo who sings Stuarda. The first insult that Mary screams at Elizabeth is “figlia impura di Bolena” (illegitimate daughter of Ann Boleyn), and these are low notes, in the middle of the voice. A mezzo manages to hurl this insult with strength, while a soprano either comes out feeble (like Mariella Devia, for example) or forces our an unnatural breast voice (like Gruberova). If you remember, Joan Sutherland solved the riddle by singing this line an octave higher. The next line “parli tu di disonore?!” (how dare you speak of dishonor?!) comes up in the pitch, and here every singer goes through her passaggio: those sopranos who force out their breast voice can’t make a decent passaggio in this spot, they jump on the head voice (finally! home!) and the result is not very nice. Di Donato begins the line with a central voice, very well set and strong, she manages a wonderful passaggio, the whole line sounds natural, and the next line “meretrice indegna e oscena!!” (obscene harlot!) comes out with a wonderful dramatic force. The last sentence is extremely well delivered by our heroin (the throne of England is dishonored by your presence, you royal bastard). Her perfect Italian diction, the relishing in the R’s (bastarrrda), the slight hint of a spit in the P of “pie'”, are all details of a great artist. The act finale becomes irresistible, with a Giannattasio rightly outraged and furious.
Saturday night I entered the Royal Opera House thinking that Joyce Di Donato was a great Rossini singer, with a superb belcanto technique, and I came out thinking that she’s a genius. We’ll see if she keeps it up!