The bearded fanatic, dressed in black, enters the cell in which the lady—who held power in the old regime and who still stubbornly clings to the old, corrupt version of the faith—has long been imprisoned. His voice dripping with hypocritical sorrow, he holds out a paper and announces the sentence toward which he has long worked: “A sad duty I come to carry out…. This is the paper that sentences you to death.” It sounds formal, but there was no due process, not even a show trial. The victim is dragged outside, and the bearded man’s henchman chops off her head.Syria in the 21st century? No—England in the 16th. This is the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, as told by Donizetti in his opera Maria Stuarda, now playing at the Met. This stunning production, starring American soprano Sandra Radvanovsky and directed by Sir David McVicar, casts a bold new light on a well-known story.Mary was executed in 1587 on the orders of her cousin and rival, Elizabeth I, at the end of a long power struggle that was religious, political, and deeply personal. The bearded figure in black, Cecil, serves as Donizetti’s composite of the Puritan councilors who avidly urged Elizabeth on to the act. The sources from which most American audiences are familiar with the story of Mary’s execution, from the 2007 Cate Blanchett film Elizabeth: The Golden Age to Garrett Matteringly’s masterful history The Armada (1959), are usually Elizabeth-centric. Even now that our great universities and popular culture are thoroughly secularized, they are built atop a Whig, Anglo-centric, and Protestant understanding of history. What’s more, history likes winners, which Elizabeth in this case was. (Although if the Spanish Armada, launched after Mary’s execution left Philip II of Spain as the next Catholic claimant to the English throne, had succeeded, Mary’s beheading would have been remembered by us all as the last, grievous mistake of Isabel I de Inglaterra.) Even Catholic Americans such as myself often share a sentimental attachment to Elizabeth, because one of the fruits of England’s unique post-divorce path was the American Revolution.But Donizetti was a Catholic composer writing for an Italian audience in the 1830s; he didn’t have these hangups. He based the opera on a play by Friedrich Schiller, the skeptical son of devout Protestants—but even in Schiller, Mary is the tragic hero. (Donizetti hired an 18-year-old law student, Giuseppe Bardari, to write the libretto under his close supervision—how would you like that gig as a student job?) From the European standpoint, however successful or even personally admirable Elizabeth might be, her reign marked the end of a great, bloody divorce between Britain and Continental Europe, in whose affairs England and Scotland had been intimately involved throughout the Middle Ages. Schiller therefore gives us Mary as the tragic champion of a lost set of universal values, and he was, as David P. Goldman notes, a great and sympathetic enough dramatist to frame his character in devoutly Catholic terms. Embracing this was a natural step for Donizetti, and the composer wrote music that, from its first lightning-like notes in the overture (brilliantly conducted by Riccardo Frizza), blends the sense of high stakes and elevated religious purpose with the tragic and romantic sensibilities we typically tend to associate with Mary Queen of Scots.Once you see Elizabeth as the bad guy, the parallel between the challenges facing 16th-century Christianity and Islam today becomes clear. In both cases, the traditional interpretation of the dominant faith had lost its vitality and its connection to the people, and the old systems of government to which it had become rigidly bound had proven both corrupt and ineffective. New interpretations of the faith, rooted in sacred scripture, spread rapidly by means of new information technology (the printing press then; the internet now), and were amplified by economic and geopolitical disruptions. In the hands of what Ross Douthat has called “theological autodidacts” and others not restrained by traditions, the cleansing fire proved to be far hotter, and far harder to control, than anyone had foreseen. And if good things came of the English Reformation, the costs were large-scale executions (Elizabeth had overseen the mass hanging of, at a conservative estimate, 450 Catholics after the Northern Rising in 1659), fanatical and widespread cultural destruction, and brutal repression. If Elizabeth is not personally fanatical, she becomes the vessel for those who are, represented by Cecil (American bass-baritone Patrick-Carfizzi, who really does look like a salafist in Renaissance costume.)Donizetti’s Mary is a tragic as well as romantic figure. Hers was the last Medieval generation, and her glories, achievements, sorrows, and sins were all of the personal sort: murders, adulteries, court intrigues. Now cornered, she’s sadly outmatched by the new methods and organization. When Mary wanted to murder someone, she sends a bravo with a pistol or dagger; when Elizabeth does, she sends a councillor with a state letter. Where Mary intrigues with lovers, Elizabeth uses plausible deniability. In Donizetti’s eye, Mary appears as a kindred spirit to the Shah or Louis XVI: somewhat silly, venal, and occasionally badly wrong, but earnest and much more humane (even more human) than what came after.This dichotomy is brought spectacularly to life by the production and its two stars. Act One opens with South African soprano Elza van den Heever’s Elizabeth speaking to her court, playing one interest off another, hiding her true feelings while negotiating an (eventually abortive) marriage with France and thinking of how to deal with the imprisoned, far-off Mary. Van den Heever made it clear in a preview at Guggenheim’s Works and Process series (I wish they held one for every opera) that she based her gait and bearing on historical descriptions of Elizabeth, who far from a sprightly auburn sexpot was by this point heavily painted and suffering from several physical ailments. The net effect is to make clear the isolation that the burdens of modern statecraft and Elizabeth’s worldview have placed on the queen.The fanatical Cecil demands that she be done with her troublesome cousin once and for all. But Elizabeth’s courtier Leicester, sung by tenor Celso Albelo, begs her to see Mary; in a love triangle of Donizetti’s invention, Leicester has secretly fallen for Mary, and thinks to save her by arranging some familial reconciliation.This works—until it fails spectacularly. Elizabeth agrees to meet, setting the stage for one of the most vocally stunning confrontations in opera in Act Two. Elizabeth meets Mary, sung by Radvanovsky, in the woods outside her castle-prison of Fotheringay. Compared to Elizabeth, Mary is scared, passionate, visually and vocally fluid. But part of that humanity is pride and impulsiveness. Try as Mary does (her life is on the line, and she knows it), she cannot shake the knowledge of her own orthodoxy and Elizabeth’s bastardy; she cannot bend. As he did in the opera Anna Bolena, which I reviewed in this space this past fall, Donizetti dramatizes a meeting that historically never took place yet is true to the emotional tone of the two historical characters: we know from Mary’s letters to and from Elizabeth what each thought of the other. The vocal fireworks between the two sopranos are spectacular; almost as captivating, both Radvanovsky and van den Heever can act—the sinuous, impassioned Mary moves circles around the haughty, physically ailing (as she was in real life), and increasingly angry Elizabeth. Her triumph and her downfall come as she declares in soaring tones, “Impure daughter of Boleyn…. The soil of England is defiled,/Vile bastard, by your foot!” Elizabeth’s rage is epic (although gorgeous) to behold, and then she storms offstage. Although some deliberations are still to come at the beginning of Act Two, from this moment on, you know that Mary’s fate is sealed.Meanwhile, Leicester has been standing there, wringing his hands as his careful plan goes completely awry. This really is a feminist opera: in it, as in history, the two Queens are the prime movers. The men around them—lovestruck, rather pathetic Leicester, faithful Talbot, fanatical Cecil—are in traditional women’s roles: they can cajole, plead, and use lovers’ wiles, but ultimately, they do not drive the action. Leicester’s vainglorious boast that he will free his beloved is for naught; rather, at Elizabeth’s command he will witness her execution.It’s Act Two, scenes two and three, that make it crystal clear that this opera is more than just the silly romance set against a serious background, as its critics have sometimes alleged. After he has delivered the death sentence, Cecil offers Mary the company of a Protestant minister (“Brami un nostro Ministro”—“Would you like one of our Ministers…”)—making it clear she will be denied the presence of a Catholic priest and thus Confession and final communion. This cruelty—which Mary sees as the attempted assassination of her soul as well as her body—leads to one of the longest sustained religious moments in opera. Mary, alone, turns to Talbot (Kwangchul Youn, a Korean bass whose superb acting and singing made this scene come alive), her jailor and a secret Catholic, who urges her to confess to him. And she does—unburdening herself of her youthful involvement in the intrigues of the French and Scottish courts, and even, eventually, of her complicity in the Babington Plot to kill Elizabeth.Shriven, Mary moves into the courtyard, the scaffold looming above her. Newly calm, she consoles her grieving attendants and Leicester, and easily slips above Cecil’s cruel barbs. She leads the company in a chorus of prayer (Deh! Tu di un umile preghiera), sings her forgiveness to Elizabeth and mounts the scaffold to the block—visually framed by set designer John Macfarlane as an ascent to heaven—just as the curtain falls. (Macfarlane’s conceptual sets are fantastic throughout.)Critics have sometimes missed the deep spiritual content of these final two scenes because, unlike Schiller, who poured out with stanza after stanza of elevated theological and political prose, Donizetti chose simpler, more accessible poetry. But the depth and meaning come from the music; this is opera, after all.As we survey another age stained with religious bloodshed, the enormous body of artwork that we have dealing with the Wars of the Reformation are coming back into vogue. The Tudors are at the center of this because they personalize these great and bloody conflicts into family quarrels. (“One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” is more literal than Stalin may have realized.) I felt a keen thrill of vindication when McVicar, Radvanovsky, and van den Heever told the crowd at Works and Process that they had read Wolf Hall (which it’s fair to say takes the other side of the theological divide) to get “in” to the period; the recurring Tudor-themed productions are not just random noise but part of an ongoing and serious cultural conversation.Maria Stuarda is, as longtime readers and opera fans alike know, part of a trio of Donizetti operas about the Tudors, the so-called “Three Queens,” that McVicar is producing at the Met this year, with Radvanovsky singing all the leads. Maria stands at the pivot point of the trilogy, which traces the arc of a religious and political revolution. In Anna Bolena, we saw infighting among the first revolutionaries, suddenly confronted with a world in which, while anything seemed possible, the usual rules and restraints on appetites no longer applied. Maria Stuarda may be read as a minority report—the protest of the dying old order, which realized too late its wrongs, against the loss of human connections and religious tradition. The series will conclude with Roberto Devereux (premieres March 24, with Radvanovsky singing Elizabeth), which will illustrate the high cost of restoring order. I can’t wait.Final performance tomorrow, Sat. February 20, 1 PM. Tickets begin at $25, see here. Same-day $25 rush tickets for all performances of Maria Stuarda are available on a first-come, first-served basis on the Met’s Web site. Tickets will go on sale for performances Monday-Friday at noon, matinees four hours before curtain, and Saturday evenings at 2pm. To enter, click here.
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Published on: February 19, 2016
Maria Stuarda at the MetThe Red Divorce