I always feel a little sorry for Donizetti. He’s like a low-ranking player in the NBA – easily better at his game than anyone you’ve ever met, but forever overshadowed by his more talented peers. Donizetti worked in the first half of the 19th century and a handful of his operas are still performed today. That’s pretty good. But he’s still not as famous as the other big bel canto composers, Verdi, Rossini, and Puccini, and with good reason. His canto is bel, but to my ear, feels a little … predictable? Formulaic? But Donizetti has one advantage over his peers – an interest in powerful women.
Donizetti wrote Daughter of the Regiment, a fun little romance about a very modern tomboy. And yes, weak-minded Lucia de Lammermoor did go mad, but in her madness she murdered her fiancé, thus refusing the fate men in her life tried to force upon her. He wrote repeatedly about the powerful women of the English Renaissance – Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth, and Mary Stuart.
It makes sense – what could be more operatic than the power struggles and intrigues of Renaissance England, especially the one between cousins who were arguably the two most powerful women in the world? What has more potential for drama than a meeting between such rivals?
So I was disappointed in Act One. You know how 1950s Hollywood made the same movie over and over regardless of variations in the source material? It felt like that. Elizabeth can’t decide if she should marry. She and Mary are jealous of the same man. Mary is frightened of facing her rival; Elizabeth is threatened by Mary’s good looks. The songs could be pulled from or dropped into any bel canto opera. There was almost no hint of their ambition or strength of character. When they meet the stakes are high for Mary, who must appear submissive. But Elizabeth doesn’t throw her weight around like a monarch; she does it like a middle school mean girl. When Mary finally snaps and fights back, the best she can do is name calling. The laundry room snark in Marriage of Figaro had more wit and fire than this royal catfight.
The second act was stronger. One gets the feeling that Donizetti wanted a one act opera but had to write the first act just for the set-up. Finally we see the hard as nails ice queen of history as Elizabeth takes decisive action, doling out calculated punishments. Even as she appears to soften before the grief of her former lover, she passes the death warrant to her advisor with one hand as she wraps the other around Leicester’s shoulder. So cold. The music in Act Two justifies Donizetti’s inclusion in the bel canto NBA. I’m not usually a fan of devotional music, but Mary’s spiritual aria was powerful and uplifting.
Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda might be a B-list opera, but Seattle Opera brought its A-game for this production. Mary Elizabeth Williams sang Elizabeth on opening night. I don’t need to have been there to know how much Seattle loved its golden girl in this darker role. On the day I attended, all three of the central characters – Mary, Elizabeth, and Leicester – were Seattle Opera debut performers. Even as I failed to connect with Queen Elizabeth-as-written in the first act, I was impressed by Keri Alkema’s delivery, especially her ability to maintain both musicality and clear diction on lines that rival Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter songs. Joyce El-Khoury was radiant in the Second Act. All three brought quality acting to their performances. Despite the fact that their roles mostly called for standing stiffly and formally addressing people, they all, especially tenor Andrew Owens, conveyed so much emotion with movements and gestures. Once in Act One he turned his head slightly at Elizabeth’s insult of Mary, and it said more about the love triangle than an entire recitative.
Baritones. Mary’s advocate Talbot was Weston Hurt, who sang in that vocal showcase, Nabucco, last year. Elizabeth’s advisor Cecil was Barihunk Michael Todd Simpson, who sang John Sorel in a surprise favorite of mine, 2014’s The Consul and sang Marcello in the beloved La boheme in 2013.
The sets from Minnesota Opera reflected Seattle Opera’s penchant for stark, simple sets that utilize mechanical movement to enhance the story. By contrast the costumes (also from Minnesota) were extravagant and historical. Like the production of Marriage of Figaro, which made similar choices, this provided viewers with just enough information without distracting attention from the complexity of the plot.
Seattle Opera hasn’t scheduled any Donizetti operas next season, but if you’re interested in watching opera where two women fight each other for survival, power, and control of a man, you could try Hansel and Gretel.