Donizetti's fascination with English history, and especially with the character of Elizabeth I, resulted in a number of operas, including Il castello di Kenilworth, Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda. The latter is the most famous and probably the greatest of the three, and was the well-deserved choice for the Chelsea Opera Group's autumn 2007 concert presentation.
As is the case with many of Donizetti's operas, Maria Stuarda has a complicated performance and reception history. When the opera was in rehearsal in 1834, the king banned its performance (on the eve of the first night, in fact). The composer reset much of the music to a different libretto, creating a new opera called Buondelmonte which was given its premiere in October of that year.
But Maria Malibran - the subject of Cecilia Bartoli's excellent new CD, reviewed here - became obsessed with the character of Mary Stuart and insisted on a La Scala premiere, which eventually happened on 30 December 1835. Donizetti made some changes to it, adding an overture and adapting the vocal line of Stuarda for Malibran's spectacular vocal range, but it's thought that he never again supervised a production of it. The opera's first major revival after his death was in 1865, but passages were cut and some of the new material from Buondelmonte was used in place of the Maria Stuarda score. This 1865 version became the basis of the performing edition which was used throughout the twentieth century until 1989, when the rediscovery of the missing autograph manuscript allowed the restoration of the opera into a more reliable form. The critical edition of the score was first used for a production in Bergamo.
Although conventions necessarily rule some sections of the opera - the opening number, for instance, serves as much to give Elisabetta a showy cabaletta-like passage as to propel the drama forward - it's interesting to see how much Donizetti adapts convention to serve the libretto in this piece. Leaving aside the historical inaccuracy of the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary, the Act I finale is extraordinary in construction. William Ashbrook has remarked on the similarity between this finale's largo concertante and that of the second-act finale of Verdi's Nabucco - two of the most powerful passages in that period of opera. Meanwhile, the unusually elongated tempo di mezzo allows Donizetti to generate a huge amount of energy leading up to the parola scenica, when Elisabetta turns to Maria and calls her a 'vile bastard'. However, the greatest number in the opera is the aria-finale, when Maria approaches death. The extraordinary vocal writing here is perhaps the apex of Donizetti's compositional achievement; no wonder it has been popular with various divas over the last few decades.
Considering the work's riches, the Chelsea Opera Group did London operagoers a service in putting on this concert performance, and effort and dedication were apparent throughout. However, on the whole I felt less convinced by this Maria Stuarda than I have done by the company's performances in the past. The chorus appears in only four of the nine numbers, for instance, and doesn't have a particularly dominant role in a couple of those. This meant that when they did sing, they weren't particularly warmed up and sounded quite strained in the final scene. Whether the opera was a good choice for the company is debatable, though Cadogan Hall isn't the best of venues for Italian opera and I think we'll all be glad when they return to the Queen Elizabeth Hall in March 2008.
I had reservations about each of the soloists. Tenor Todd Wilander was stretched far beyond his limits as Leicester, lacking the flexibility, ringing tone and stamina for the part. In the title role, Majella Cullagh made a good stab at Maria's taxing music, never flagging in energy or enthusiasm, and Sally Silver brought an air of authority to Elisabetta. But I don't really understand why they both kept diverging from the critical edition which they were using and opting to sing high descant lines which took them both above the stave where neither is particularly secure. Both sopranos sounded exposed, not least because of the close proximity of the performers to the audience at Cadogan Hall, especially when the stage is extended into the stalls as was the case here. Cullagh's singing in the lower register was wonderfully rich and resonant - in contrast to some more famous singers in this repertoire - but she had serious tuning problems above the stave, especially when approaching high notes at large intervals. It really isn't necessary to interpolate high Cs and Ds where they aren't written; I'd rather hear the composer's melodic line sung more accurately. Some people preferred Silver's more incisive attack, but I found her vibrato excessive and even her loudly-applauded cavatina in the Introduction left me cold because of the inattention to dynamics and subtle phrasing.
Roderick Earle sounded less lyrical and assured than I've heard him on previous occasions, though he entered into the character of Talbot well. It was left to Philippe Fourcade as Cecil and Anne-Marie Gibbons as Anna to sing with style and accuracy, though Fourcade was amusingly immune to Todd Wilander's attempts to involve him in the drama in the latter stages of the opera. Indeed, Wilander was unusual in his effort to act the part in this performance; for me, Silver did not engage enough with her colleagues and Cullagh kept smiling out of character in the finale scene, where more varied acting would have helped.
As with his performance with Opera North in Falstaff recently, Tecwyn Evans brought out many details from the orchestra, who mostly sounded fine despite some faulty violin tuning and fluffed horn notes in the second act (though neither the Royal Opera House Orchestra nor the LSO are immune to those). But there was a curious lack of fire about the conducting and playing, which is normally the strength of this company.
In short, although there was much to enjoy and the opportunity to hear the work was a pleasure, I'm hoping for better things after Chelsea Opera's return to the Queen Elizabeth Hall.