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A Well Earned Rave

It was one of the nicest New Year’s Eves I can remember; with an old and dear friend I went to the first performance of Donizetti’s opera about Mary Queen of Scots.

The NYT opera critic Anthony Tommasini gave a rave review to the Met’s New Year’s Eve performance of Maria Stuarda, and it was eminently deserved. The libretto follows Schiller’s dramatization of the rivalry between Elizabeth I and her cousin and rival Mary Stuart, and ends with Mary mounting the scaffold where the executioner waits, ax in hand.

Like the Schiller original, the story isn’t true to life; the scene in which Mary and Elizabeth confront each other in the forest outside Mary’s prison never happened, and Elizabeth’s decision to have her cousin (and heir) executed was all about politics; no love triangles were involved.

But who cares? It is a magnificent piece of theater, gloriously performed. As the two queens stalk one another through the trees, the singing and the orchestra combine to make the kind of intense mix of drama and beauty that makes great opera unique.

And the singing is extraordinary. Joyce DiDonatto’s Mary drove the audience into frenzied applause time and again. As Elizabeth, Elza van den Heever was making her first appearance at the Met; if the administration has any sense, she’ll be back. Both women combined stunning singing with acting that turned a spectacle into real theater.

The staging hit a few false notes; the blood red lighting of the first scene called attention to itself and detracted from the events, and both Ms van den Heever and the audience might have been happier if she had been given a dress instead of a strange looking red pants suit in one scene and if the hoop skirt (or whatever they called those things in Tudor days) in her last scene hadn’t been quite so large and unmanageable. As her skirts and hoops distractingly bobbed and weaved she sometimes looked more like a bad sailor floating in rough seas than a queen bestriding her chamber.

But those are details, and to some extent reflect the difficulty which many opera stage professionals have in adjusting to the arrival of seat back titles. Opera is a more gripping and engaging spectacle now for the audience than it was when the audience was unable to follow the libretto in real time. It’s as if opera were a great painting that for centuries had darkened under an accumulating load of varnish, but that has now been restored to its original glory. This has implications for frame makers; it’s better now to let the picture speak for itself. In the new and more open age of opera that is coming upon us, great staging and smart productions should support the drama rather than calling attention to themselves with unsubtle touches — like bathing the set in lurid red.

But that aside, this is a show that everyone with the slightest interest in music or drama should try to see. Monday was the first time this magnificent piece had ever been staged at the Met; there are performance through January 26. For those who don’t live in New York or are pinching their pennies, it will be shown in HD on Saturday, January 19 at theaters around the country. (You can find a list of theaters in the US, Canada and beyond and order tickets here.)

Those of us who write and teach for a living rather than arrange IPOs don’t get to that many opera premiers. I was just lucky enough that my regular Monday night series happened to include this very special event at no extra cost. For only $1,000 more, there was a charming reception we could have attended, but my friend and I felt that we had seen enough.

The show, and a dinner at Shun Lee West (where the spicy winter venison is to die for) made for a lovely New Year’s Eve. We left dinner at midnight as fireworks exploded over Central Park and the sounds from Times Square reached Columbus Circle; non-plutocratically we got onto the subway to our respective homes. 2013 is off to a wonderful start.

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