This year, Met general manager Peter Gelb came up with a serious way to ring in the new year: a company premiere production of Donizettis Maria Stuarda, the challenging bel canto tragedy that recounts the clash between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots) and ends with the anguished Mary heading to the executioners block.
The New Years gala offered opera fans a musically splendid and intensely dramatic performance.
Audiences in Boise and around the world will be treated to a live simulcast of the matinee on Jan. 19 as part of the Met Live in HD series.
The production stars the great American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title role. DiDonatos performance will be pointed to as a model of singing in which all components of the art form technique, sound, color, nuance, diction come together in service to expression and eloquence.
Directed by David McVicar, this production takes a traditional approach, but with some vivid colors and stark imagery to lend a contemporary touch to John Macfarlanes sets and costumes.
In the opening scene at the Palace of Whitehall in London, where Elizabeths subjects are celebrating what they think will be her acceptance of a marriage proposal from the king of Frances brother, the set evokes a spacious 16th-century hall. But the wood-paneled walls and the matrix of rafters are an eerie blood red, and the revelers are decked out in creamy white dresses and suits that look strangely matched.
McVicars production is hardly a bold take on the opera. But better to have something traditional than a half-baked concept. His staging is more visually striking and imaginative than what he came up with for Donizettis Anna Bolena, which opened the 2011-12 season, the first installment of the Mets planned presentation of Donizettis Tudor trilogy, of which Maria Stuarda is the second. (Roberto Devereux will be next.)
This production has the right conductor in the pit: Maurizio Benini, who has long brought a sure hand and insight to bel canto works.
The cast is excellent. In a notable Met debut, Elza van den Heever, a 33-year-old South African soprano whose career is rising internationally, is a vocally burnished and emotionally tempestuous Elizabeth (Elisabetta).
Her sound, with its earthy tinge and quick vibrato, is not conventionally beautiful. But her voice has penetrating depth and character. She turns flights of coloratura passagework into bursts of jealousy and defiance as Elizabeth contends with the threat that Mary, a blood relative, poses to her reign in England.
In her final scene, in which Elizabeth orders Marys death, Ms. van den Heever, in cumbersome queenly regalia, almost waddled around her palace room, looking physically shaken by the course she could see no way around. This may have been a bit of overacting. But I admired the rawness and vulnerability of Van den Heevers performance.
Matthew Polenzani, who is becoming the Mets go-to tenor in bel canto repertory brings melting sound and appealing vulnerability to the role of the hapless Robert Dudley (Roberto), the Earl of Leicester.
He is caught between love for the doomed Mary and entangled feelings for the imperious Elizabeth. Polenzani embraced the challenge, singing with verve, crispness and poignancy.
Matthew Rose brings a robust bass voice and dignified presence to the role of George Talbot (Giorgio), the Earl of Shrewsbury, who is loyal to Mary. The baritone Joshua Hopkins captures the mix of genuine concern and political calculation that drives William Cecil (Guglielmo), Elizabeths secretary of state. And the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak is touching as Jane Kennedy (Anna), Marys devoted lady-in-waiting.
In her first scene, when Mary is given a moment of freedom and sees the fields and the trees, DiDonato infuses her lines with a tender mix of nobility, uncertainty and sadness. When Mary feels happy for a moment, as in her youth, DiDonato sings the word felice with heartbreaking wistfulness.
Though history tells us that Mary and Elizabeth never met, Donizetti, following Schiller, gives them an intense scene of confrontation. How could he resist presenting his audience with dueling divas?
In the last extended scene, Donizetti excelled himself. Facing her execution, Mary confesses her sins to Talbot, then, surrounded by faithful servants, leads a noble, prayerful chorus as good as anything in Verdi.
DiDonato is simply magnificent, singing with plush richness and aching beauty.
Dana Olands arts column will return next week