Hilary Reid Evans

Pity the Poor Queen
Maria Stuarda, Royal Opera House, Saturday 5th July 2014

If you have any awareness at all of Scottish history, you will recognize the plot of Donizetti's opera for the tosh it is, reducing, as it does, a complex constitutional and religious crisis to a bitch-fest. Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser's production hardly helps arouse one's sympathies - or indeed any emotion other than sheer exasperation. What possible point was there to be made in dressing the two leading ladies in period costume and the rest of the cast in 20th century garb? Why in the world was the first scene played out against Pugin's 19th century Houses of Parliament? Forgive me if I am wrong, but somehow I don't think that Elisabetta I possessed a drinks trolley complete with crystal decanters. Why also have Maria imprisoned in a high security jail, her execution in a white-painted fluorescent cell? Why the projected venetian blinds? Why (oh dear why) the apparent homage to Princess Diana? I feared at one point that, due to the staging, the chorus might be about to burst into a rendition of Candle in the Wind.

I did not see any pre-performance talks advertised but I do feel it would be useful if somehow, sometime, the producers could give their audience just the slightest hint of whatever it is they are aiming for. I understand more Leiser/Caurier productions are scheduled for the Opera House in coming seasons. So can I gently suggest that the RoH marketing department organizes a few interviews or talks to guide us, the poor paying customers, through the recesses of the producers' minds?

The production of course masks an extraordinarily fine musical event. Reams have been written about Joyce diDonato's technical expertise and control, as well as her magnificent emotional interpretation. In this production she has, methinks, an easy ride. No complicated costumes to manage, no real props to deal with, only a somewhat mysterious staging of an aria whilst standing on a possibly rickety chair. And magnificent indeed she is.

My heart went out however to Carmen Giannattasio, with her debut as the scorned and vengeful Elisabetta. Making her entry wearing an enormous farthingale (think the National Portrait Gallery's Ditchley portrait and you have it) she must manipulate a crowd barrier chicane to lean on an incongruous modern lectern and she must manage the tricky stage skills of eating and drinking whilst delivering complicated and demanding arias. Giannattasio nevertheless showed a dazzling technique along with impressive bravado and bel canto agility, as well as bringing her very own Latin passion to the role. Technically demanding, although relatively short, the role of Elisabetta covers about three octaves as well as coloratura and trills. No easy task, especially in that costume!

As the two queens' love interest Ismael Jordi (Leicester) despite some fine singing seemed strangely ineffectual. Perhaps it was sheer terror in the face of the forceful queens' advances?

In the pit, Bertrand de Billy coaxed a delicacy from the Royal Opera House orchestra without falling into Donizettian cliché. Giannattasio is scheduled to reprise the role of Elisabetta at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées next June, with Alexandra Kurzak as Maria in the soprano version of the score. Worth a trip.

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