Theater an der Wien 2017-18 Review – Maria Stuarda: Alexandra Deshorties & Marlis Petersen Put On Revelatory, Sublime Performances

(Credit: Monika Rittershaus / Theater an der Wien)

Mary Stuart was executed in 1587 after spending almost twenty years as Queen Elizabeth’s prisoner, bringing to end a turbulent relationship between the two Queens that stretched back over their entire lifetimes. It was a relationship that was to fire the imaginations of future generations and give rise to the productions of many works from plays and operas to numerous films. Their story is so dramatic and colorful it has everything a writer looking for inspiration could ask for: treachery, familial loyalty, murder, plotting, imprisonment, conflicts over political and religious matters, with a manufactured love triangle thrown-in for good measure. Added to this was the widely accepted image of Mary as a femme fatale. Moreover, they were both powerful women in an overwhelming male-dominated society. Indeed, it would have been more surprising if their story had not acted as an inspiration.

Donizetti’s contribution was his two act opera, “Maria Stuarda,” based upon a play of the same name by Friedrich Schiller. Donizetti and his librettist Giuseppe Bardari, while remaining true to the general thrust of the historical narrative, made a few minor alterations in order to enhance the dramatic impact. They tinkered with the role played by Elizabeth’s favorite, the Earl of Leicester, who instead of being romantically linked to Mary Stuart for political reasons, actually becomes her lover, thus adding a further personal dimension to their conflict. More significantly (and following Schiller’s lead), however, in what amounted to a coup-de-theatre, they had Mary and Elizabeth confront each other at the end of Act one, an event that never actually took place. This was to be the opera’s musical and dramatic focal point. The scene is pivotal and of such significance that it is likely to define the success or failure of any production of the work.

In Each Other’s Shadows

The director for this new production by the Theater an der Wien, Christopher Loy, created a wonderfully well-paced reading of the work. In Act one the intensity and tension ebbed and flowed, but always in an upward direction, before culminating in the explosive confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth at the end of the act. The pace in Act two was then allowed to slacken as the focus shifted onto the inner tensions that beset the characters: firstly onto Elizabeth’s reaction to the meeting with Mary, which in turn leads to her signing Mary’s death warrant, followed by Mary’s own reaction to her forthcoming execution. Loy then allowed Elizabeth herself to administer the coup-de-gras, as she swung the axe on to Mary’s neck as the curtain fell. This was a very personal act, based upon what was a deep psychological connection between Mary and Elizabeth. In fact, it was this observation that underscored Loy’s interpretation; nothing either Queen did was distinct. Throughout the production they lived in the footsteps of each other’s shadow.

In effect, this production was essentially a psychological exploration of both Queens. Loy’s undoubted talent and experience not only ensured that this approach was dramatically successful, but it was also an approach that was easily accessible and one that did not interfere with the narrative. Aiding him in this task was Kartrin Lea Tag (scenographer/costumes) and Bernd Purkrabek (lighting)

The set was simple as it was effective, consisting only of a large wooden circular stage which rotated and tilted, with a wooden background, along which ran a rail upon which the cast sat or walked. There were no props. Its very simplicity allowed the focus to remain centered on the protagonists.

Act one is full of energy and movement, the revolving stage enabling the cast to continue moving while remaining at its center. The chorus is very active, surrounding Mary, physically pulling her in one direction and then another – she is trapped, with nowhere to run, a prisoner, in which the psychological impact is as clear as it is brutal. Elizabeth, too, is surrounded, but is not manhandled. There is deference, but she too is not free, trapped in her role as Queen, with all its psychological fallout. The drama speeds forward under its own momentum as the Queens are drawn into, ready themselves, and then engage in battle. And what a wonderfully choreographed battle it was! Neither Mary nor Elizabeth were looking for reconciliation; Elizabeth constantly provoking Mary and flaunting her power; Mary, who was clearly never happy bending her knee to Elizabeth, is balanced on knife edge, ready to explode. And explode she does, flying at Elizabeth, and needing to be restrained by the guards.

Loy and Tag created a sharp distinction between the two acts. The energetic movement of Act one calmed for Act two, the chorus became almost stationary and the atmosphere more introspective. Even the costumes changed. In first act, the cast wore traditional costumes, whereas in the second act they wore black modern day suits. Elizabeth looking every bit the image of the Queen Elizabeth found in history books, with blazing red hair and wide dresses with a large white ruff in the first act became a company CEO in the second act, in which she is dressed in a black executive suit. Mary had transformed from a 16th century Queen, costumed in a pale blue wide dress into a nondescript 21st century woman in a black dress with black shoes. Initially, the abrupt change in costumes was a little disconcerting, but its effect was ultimately successful. All the attention became focused on the emotional expression of the protagonists rather than the action.

If there was one negative criticism to make about Loy’s direction it was with that the focus was so much on the central characters, and the role of the chorus was so well constructed that the treatment of the minor characters seemed to be somewhat neglected by comparison. They were less well-defined and the acting was too often superficial. Yes, it allowed focus to remain on Elizabeth and Mary, but detracted from the overall effect. Also on a purely technical level the revolving stage was too noisy, disconcertingly so at times.

One interesting consequence of Loy’s approach was that it brought the drama closer to historical reality than is normally the case in a production of this opera. The emotional and psychological connection between Elizabeth and Mary was real, deep and complex; they shared much that only they could experience – both were Queens in a male-dominated world, both came from the same Tudor lineage and both came to symbolize their religion. Yet, at the same time they were thrust against each other on many levels and became rivals, the similarities of their experiences only exacerbating the tensions. In such circumstances the meeting of the two Queens acts only as a cipher in bringing a sharper focus to the conflict – the fact that it never occurred in reality being largely irrelevant.

Two of a Kind

Alexandra Deshorties, as Elizabeth, and Marlis Petersen, as Mary, would probably have ensured the success of this production on their own, such was the strength of their singing and acting performances. Both had a strong stage presence which allowed them to dominate the scenes in which they were present. They both created strong, multi-layered characters. Elizabeth was regal and aggressive, yet with an underlying frailty. Mary was impulsive, often verging on mental collapse, yet proud and courageous. Both were headstrong. Both ready for a fight.

Deshorties put in a vocally intense and expressive performance. Her excellent technique, agility and richly colored palette enabling her to produce a gripping performance that demanded the audience’s attention. Her Act one aria, “Ah! quando all’ara sorgemi… Ah dal ciel descenda un raggio” showed off her phrasing, coloring, agility, and ability to embellish the vocal line in fine style. In this she was matched by Petersen who displayed formidable vocal control with an array of engaging textures, with excellent strength across the range, and presented a compelling vocal performance, if not always immediately recognizable as being in the bel canto style. Petersen took a much more dramatic and intense approach, and forsook a degree of grace and subtlety in embellishing the vocal line and relinquished a degree of vocal beauty. However, this was a sound decision, perfectly suited to the production, and one that added significantly to her characterization of Mary as a woman who, at times, was teetering on the edge. Yet, unsurprisingly, it was the face-to-face meeting of Elizabeth and Mary that really impressed, both because of the vocal brilliance on display and because the scene had been superbly well-staged. It was a truly a gripping piece of theatre.

Not in the Same League

It fell to Norman Rheinhardt to play the role of Leicester, and unfortunately, he was just not the singer for this type of production. His voice has a sweet, refined Italianate quality, which is undoubtedly well-suited to many roles within the bel canto repertoire, but in this production, with its emphasis on emotional and dramatic intensity, he was unable to establish his presence, and was pushed into the background by Petersen and Deshorties. In particular, his failure to take advantage of his opening cavatina “Ah! rimiro il bel sembiante” in order to lay down a marker was an opportunity missed. Nor was he helped by his acting, which too often relied on stock gestures. Rather than an integral part of the drama, Leicester became a bystander, a loose-end, and compromised the dramatic impact of the love triangle. However, at least part of the fault must lie with the director who clearly did not give sufficient attention to how the role had been choreographed. Certainly, Rheinhardt has quality and will have many successful performances in future roles, but Leicester is unlikely to be one of them, at least not in a production of this nature.

Stefan Cerny has a strong, resonant bass with a warm texture, and put in an authoritative performance as Elizabeth’s advisor and Catholic sympathizer, Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. Although his phrasing occasionally lacked a little finesse, he dominated the role and maintained a solid stage presence throughout the evening. Unfortunately, this had the effect of highlighting the somewhat weaker, although not unpleasant, voice of Tobias Greenhalgh in the role of Lord Cecil, another of Elizabeth’s advisors, who pressures her into signing Mary’s death warrant. Natalia Kawalek made a good impression in the minor role of Anna Kennedy, Mary’s lady-in-waiting.

Very Impressive

The “Arnold Schoenberg Chor,” under the direction of the Erwin Ortner, was first class. The singing was absolutely terrific! Towards the end of Act two, Mary’s friends lament her fate in a moving chorus “Oh truce apparato!” It was sung with such strength of feeling that it could easily withstand comparison to the performances of Deshorties and Petersen for its emotional impact.

The ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien under the direction of Paolo Arrivabeni produced a high-energy performance, in which the level of tension was never allowed to slacken. Yet, it was never intrusive, and took a subordinate role which allowed the singers to shine.

Overall, Loy and his team created a reading of “Maria Stuarda” that was intense, atmospheric, and psychologically penetrating. It was a first-rate production which underpinned some excellent singing from the two outstanding female leads.

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