Houston Grand Opera's Mary Stuart: Hail, Joyce DiDonato!

For more on the Houston Grand Opera production of Mary Stuart, read our interviews with Joyce DiDonato, Katie Van Kooten and Eric Cutler.

The setup:

There's an old Italian operatic term, one that probably originated at Milan's Teatro alla Scala (or La Scala, for operaphiles), called "prima donna assoluta." It denotes the female singer without equal, the first among firsts, the absolute best that opera delivers. It's rarely used seriously anymore, but after seeing Houston Grand Opera's production of Gaetano Donizetti's Maria Stuarda (1835) -- HGO calls it Mary Stuart, but sings it in Italian -- I propose that the moniker should be brought back into usage and bestowed upon mezzo Joyce DiDonato.

There is no one like her on the opera stage today. She is a star, a superstar, in fact, and has all the finest qualities that overworked term brings to mind: a radiant and attractive stage presence whose heat can be felt by an audience; an effortless light that illuminates her character; and, the prima quality for any singer, a flawless technique and lush vocal tone that flies through whatever roulades, filigree and stratospheric heights the composer asks. She is a phenomenon, and, even better, a local girl, graduating from HGO's Studio Artist program in 1998. She has now sung at NYC's Metropolitan, Milan's La Scala, Berlin's Deutsche Oper, and London's Royal Opera, among many other houses, and has just won a 2012 Grammy for Best Classical Vocalist for Diva, Divo.

In other words, she has arrived. Like the publicists said about Garbo: DiDonato's back and Houston's got her! Young and on the ascendant cusp of her career, she is the future of opera. We can put all worries about that fat old art form, growing useless and eating chocolates on the divan, on the back burner for the present. With her gracing the stage, opera's in excellent shape.

The execution:

Donizetti's one-time forgotten Mary Stuart is looking pretty rosy, too, in this minimal but maximally effective production borrowed from Minnesota Opera.

Written after his big hits Anna Bolena, L'elisir d'amore and Lucrezia Borgia, Mary Stuart never got the recognition it deserved and hardly got off the ground, censored by the King of Naples immediately after its 1834 dress rehearsal.

With some major alterations to the original after even more censors got their hands on it, Mary Stuart, starring the 19th-century phenomenon, mezzo Maria Malibran, premiered in Milan. Firebrand diva Malibran refused to obey the censors, who had cut the violent "confrontation scene" between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth I, the opera's dramatic heart. The timorous censors had softened Mary's outburst, which included "vile bastard," "slut" and "lascivious harlot." Hearing the words sung full out, the censors banned the work once more. Malibran died soon after the Milan premiere, so Donizetti reworked the opera again, but the work had lost its allure, especially amid the clamor after his international successes, Lucia di Lammermoor and the sparkling comedy La fille du régiment. Poor Maria got the axe.

She stayed pretty much dead and buried until the 1970s, when soprano Beverly Sills at NYC Opera, another American superstar with the clout to mount it and the coloratura to do it justice, brought it back into the repertoire. Mary Stuart was resurrected.

A prime example of bel canto opera ("beautiful singing"), Mary is not one of Donizetti's prime-time best, and shows its turbulent, censored past with an out-of-balance structure which drops Elizabeth after the beginning of Act II, downplays the love interest and keeps Maria center stage in too many prayerful scenes until her demise. Once she's condemned, there's no drama left. There's plenty of opportunity for great singing, though, and when you have the caliber of DiDonato soaring through her prayers, augmented by a magnificent choral number, it's all worth hearing.

Like Mary Queen of Scots, DiDonato has her rival in soprano Katie Van Kooten as proud, jealous Elizabeth I, Queen of England. It's a match made in opera heaven. Van Kooten blows the roof off the Wortham as imperious Liz, with a sumptuous voice that eats up Donizetti's dramatic line with amazing agility and temperament. Last heard at HGO as a sympathetic Ellen in Britten's shatteringly emotional Peter Grimes, this young American soprano is a revelation. When the two queens finally meet, it's a scene that Verdi would have died to compose. Astute both psychologically and musically, the two women, both proud and equally right in their outlooks -- one Protestant, one Catholic -- lock horns in one of opera's great duets. Mary starts off on the ground in supplication, but Elizabeth's haughty taunts are too much. She rises to meet her face to face on equal footing, hurling those "vile" insults which incite Elizabeth and seal Mary's doom. It's the opera's zenith, and maestro Patrick Summers meets it with his usual orchestral ferocity and transparent playing of the finest order.

The supporting cast rises to meet the mile-high expectations of DiDonato and Van Kooten. Perhaps not the most ardent of suitors, Eric Cutler, as Mary's improbable lover Leicester, grew into the role yet seemed strangely out of place in pantaloons and ruff collar. He was of the 21st century in manner, smacking his fist in anguish over Mary's imprisonment like the drink he had ordered from the bar was vodka, not beer. He sounded robust, though, and his pleas to Elizabeth to save his inamorata were heartfelt and solid. Better was bass Robert Gleadow, as Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, supporter of Mary in the English court. His role isn't large, but it's important to the drama, and he never lacked conviction or genuine concern. In Mary's confession scene, his plangent bass rang out with a sonic boom. Oren Gradus, as Machiavellian Lord Cecil, Elizabeth's prime minister who wants Mary out of the way as soon as possible, is tremendously effective as the uncharitable statesman who wields power with such flair.

The Kevin Newbury production is minimal, with none of the Euro-trash fuss and bother that has plagued HGO in recent seasons. The Neil Patel set is dominated by a gilded coffered ceiling from which columns descend to denote either Elizabeth's realm or Mary's domain. Except for the lavish period Jessica Jahn costumes, the stage is swept of extraneous chaff, just enough to tell us where we are and give a mood. The singing is why we're here, and Newbury keeps motivations clear and our eyes focused on who should be in the spotlight. When minor bel canto works are this beautifully realized, nothing else is needed.

The verdict:

Yes, poor Mary Queen of Scots dies on the block (here, she raises her arms to heaven as the background goes red), but this unappreciated minor work of Donizetti lives on, thanks to the scintillating performances of Van Kooten and, most importantly, DiDonato. Hail to the queen. Hail, DiDonato! Long may you reign!

Donizetti's fanciful yet dramatic tale of Mary Queen of Scots and her head-butting with cousin and rival Elizabeth I runs April 27 and 29, and May 2 and 4, at Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at www.houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-OPERA (6737). $25-$313.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover