The second of Donizetti's three Tudor operas, "Maria Stuarda," made its Met debut in David McVicar and John MacFarlane's stimulating new production. Their stagecraft maintained glittering period costumes and appropriate props, but the barrenness and pronounced simplicity of the set focused attention on Donizetti's multifaceted characters in Saturday's simulcast.
At the start of Act I, Elizabeth I, sung by Elza van den Heever, is queen and Mary Stuart, sung by Joyce DiDonato, has been imprisoned. The queen loves Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, sung by Matthew Polenzani, but Leicester does not return the queen's love and intercedes for Mary Stuart. The queen agrees to an audience with Mary Stuart, but the hatred between the two queens is so deep-rooted that even Leicester cannot sway Elizabeth to mercy. Years after the heated confrontation, Queen Elizabeth signs Mary's death warrant, and, as a final bitter gesture to the lovers, commands that Leicester witness the beheading.
Elza van den Heever was regally attired as Queen Elizabeth I, but her broad stature gave her a condescending and authoritative presence. Though her voice was sweet and smooth, she knew how to feed it in moments of perturbation. Her control, both vocally and emotionally, shone through most clearly in her Act II aria, "Quella vita a me funesta," which displayed cascading runs of flawless coloratura while revealing the queen's conflicted mind.
Van den Heever radiated a contagious energy that brought real drama to the stage. Sparks flew in the confrontation scene closing Act I as Elisabetta and Stuarda hurled fiery insults at one another. DiDonato was equally inspired in her characterization, but exuded her emotions in a more understated manner. When she learns she will be executed, DiDonato's Stuarda does not become frenzied or hysterical, but shows her terror in subdued trembling. DiDonato's unique sound was appropriately ardent, but it was the fragility of her pianos that gave her tone an introspective and noble touch.
Matthew Polenzani completed the love triangle with his sympathetic portrayal of the Earl of Leicester. Though Leicester does not measure up to the two queens in nobility, Polenzani gave the Earl's emotions dimension with his vocal charisma. Donizetti's sweet love tunes seem to have been written for Polenzani's bright, honeyed voice, as he turned them with ease and ardor.
Donizetti's marvelous duets, trios, and ensembles were gracefully executed by the cast and orchestra with the help of guest conductor, Maurizio Benini. Benini kept a steady hold on the shifting tempi throughout this emotionally brimming opera.