Opera Review Print

Dueling Divas Strike Fiery Drama and Bel Canto in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda

January 27, 2010 - Winston-Salem, NC:

It would be tragic if threatening weather should keep a large turnout away from the two remaining performances of Maria Stuarda (1834) by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). A modest but enthusiastic house was on hand in Stevens Center for the opening night of a superb staging of the composer's second of three operas involving Queen Elizabeth I, Britain's Virgin Queen. History is played loosely in favor of heightened drama in this love triangle between Elizabeth, her Catholic cousin and rival Mary Queen of Scotts, and the British queen's favorite, Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester. The opera encompasses Mary's imprisonment, her fatal confrontation with Elizabeth, and her eventual beheading with requisite spiritual confession or "death scene."

These opera productions of the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts feature rising young Fletcher scholars as soloists, musicians from the School of Music, and costumes, sets, and lighting and stage technicians from the School of Design and Production. Music lovers get performances on a high level and the superbly prepared students get to strut their stuff.

Bel canto operas often have one central role for a major dramatic soprano. Maria Stuarda has juicy parts for two such divas. An earlier version of the opera, under the title Buondelmonte, is infamous for the two divas coming to fisticuffs on the stage in Naples! While the two Fletcher divas exercised restraint, I was worried about Elizabeth's free-wheeling of her riding crop during the vivid confrontation scene ending Act I! The roles of the queens are the heart's desire of every dramatic soprano with the requisite power and technique. As Elizabeth and Mary, Amanda Moody and Jodi Burns, had these arrows from a diva's quiver in spades. Besides the big scenes for the queens, the opera has choice duets for each with the tenor as Leicester, and a fine sextet.

The first half of the production's Act I was dominated by the overwhelming stage presence of Amanda Moody's Elizabeth. She was not upstaged by the finely designed throne and regal costume. Her intonation and diction were superb as was her subtle, meaningful shading of words. Her dynamic range was awesome, from a hushed aside to her thundering fury. The third scene began with Jodi Burns' Mary in a light mood, enjoying a rare outing from her cell. Her diction and refined tone were excellent. She vividly conveyed Mary's affection for Leicester and her bull-headed pride. Her dynamic range fully matched Moody's as she went from humble submission to fiery rage. It was tactless to call Elizabeth a bastard born of Ann Boleyn! Each diva commanded the stage when she was the focus of the scene but the excitement was ratcheted up when both held sway, like a duel between sports rivals such as Duke and Carolina (well maybe not this season!). Mezzo-soprano Katherine Ardoin was effective as Mary's loyal companion Anna Kennedy.

Male singers' voices mature much slower than those of women. While the divas' distaff colleagues were well-prepared and fine, their vocalism was on a level closer to mere mortals. I have enjoyed the pleasant, warm-toned tenor of Adam Ulrich, who sang the role of the Queens' love interest Leicester, in last season's productions. His stage acting has gotten freer. His diction and carefully gauged projection were very good. Baritone Kyle Guglielmo, as the sympathetic Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, was fine. Age will add weight and darken his tone even better. Bass Richard Ollarsaba already has a sable quality to his tone which aided in his characterization of the manipulative power behind Elizabeth, Lord Cecil, Chancellor of the Exchequer.  George Whittaker, III was effective in the non-singing or speaking role of Thomas, page to Elisabeth.

Music Director James Allbritten kept the complex stage action closely coordinated with his well-rehearsed student instrumentalists in the deeply recessed pit under the stage. Orchestra balance was excellent and there were numerous fine solos. A deep, melancholy clarinet, subtle horns, strongly characterized woodwinds, and an extended harp solo, come immediately to mind. The string sections produced a full, warm sound. The cellos were delightful during several important scenes. The chorus was superb, singing with great clarity while executing complex stage blocking as Elizabeth's courtiers in the opera's opening, or Mary's grief-stricken and stunned followers in the final scene.

Stage Director Steven LaCosse's period staging of Maria Stuarda was strikingly dramatic, combining vivid blocking of characters and chorus, suggestive stage elements, and gorgeous, richly varied costumes. The costumes were designed by M. Meriwether Snipes and evocative sets were designed by Yanirmarie Diaz. The many elaborate wigs and complex makeup were the creations of Sarah C. Redding. D. Alex Bright's lighting designs made the most of the sets and costumes. The name belies a subtle touch! The easily followed supertitles were by Nancy E. Goldsmith. Vocal preparation was by Angela Vanstory Ward.

Do not miss this outstanding staging of one of Donizetti's most dramatic and tightly organized operas! For details see our calendar.