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Maria Stuarda

Staatsoper Unter den Linden
09/29/2006 -  and 3, 7, 11 and 15 October 2006
Gaetano Donizetti: Maria Stuarda
Elena Mosuc (Maria Stuarda), Katarina Karnéus (Elisabetta), José Bros (Roberto, Earl of Leicester), Christof Fischesser (Giorgio Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury), Arttu Kataja (Lord Guglielmo Cecil), Constance Heller (Anna Kennedy)
Karsten Wiegand (Director), Alain Rappaport (Set Designer), Britta Leonhardt (Costume Designer), Andreas Fuchs/Diego Leetz (Lighting), Eberhard Friedrich (Chorus Director)
Alain Altinoglu (Conductor)
Staatskapelle Berlin and Staatsopernchor

While the overture is played, a black and white film flickers on the stage curtain. It shows two grandly dressed divas taking their bows. Many bouquets are thrown to one of them and she grandly shares them with her colleague. Then the curtain rises on the interior of a large shabby house. A deranged-looking woman in flannel pyjamas listens to a scratchy recording of "Maria Stuarda". A bloke in a windbreaker turns up the volume for her. After a few moments the live music starts again and it is revealed that the woman is none other than the Queen of England and the bloke is the Earl of Leicester. Another man - who turns out to be Lord Guglielmo Cecil - lurks about like a stalker. He wears a T-shirt proclaiming "Elisabeth Forever". This queen is shown as living on dreams or delusions of past glory and the power of her mania actually conjures up from the deep gloom of the house a sepia-lit chorus in the dress of Donizetti's era. Whenever she comes down stairs she makes a grotesque entrance much like Norma Desmond at the end of "Sunset Boulevard". Her makeup is askew and her costumes are increasingly bizarre. Poor Katarina Karnéus! - her singing is really very good, but what one hears is affected by what one sees and her awful costumes sabotage her whole performance. Her second costume is an unbecoming Shirley Temple short dress with puffy sleeves. In the work's most dramatic scene she has to wear baby doll pyjamas and a crown seemingly fashioned from old Christmas ornaments, and later on a tatty full-length fur coat with a turban that would have made Edith Sitwell flinch.

We eventually discover there is another resident of the creepy house, and she is in a wheelchair. This is Maria Stuarda - obviously the other diva from the brief film, and also deranged. She wears a crown composed of gilded rams horns. The abusive relationship and general milieu conjure up the 1962 Hollywood camp classic "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?", with Elisabeth in the Bette Davis role and Maria in the Joan Crawford role. Youngish director Kartsen Wiegand has chosen a eurotrash approach for his debut with the Staatsoper. The danger with these period pieces is that they can become a stuffy, velvet-smothered pageant. Freshening and updating is risky business - and it can work, as exemplified by the Staatsoper's "Boris Godunov " (recently reviewed). In 2005 I saw another of Donizetti's Tudor Trilogy, "Roberto Devereux", at the Liceu in Barcelona. There they opted for an eloquent semi-staging of the piece, an approach far preferable to Wiegand's notions that often drew inappropriate but understandable laughter from the audience. For example: in the confrontation scene between the two queens (an ahistorical invention by Friedrich Schiller) the crippled Maria has fallen out of her wheelchair and lies helpless on the floor - and the heartless Elisabeth proceeds to kick her around the stage. As Oscar Wilde wrote, it would take a person with a heart of stone NOT to laugh. At the very end of the work, Maria briefly regains the use of her legs so she can walk to her execution. She is wearing a wedding gown which she has found under the floorboards and is wearing a crown. Elisabeth is also wearing a wedding gown and brandishing a large crucifix. It turns out to have a switchblade in it and she slits Maria's throat, uttering triumpant cackling laughter. How embarassing!

Musically this was a strong performance. The title role puts the soprano through all the bel canto hoops and the doll-like Elena Mosuc sails through them all. Having heard Juan Diego Florez the night before in "La Sonnambula" made me yearn for more nuance from José Bros (and the intimate Staatsoper is a theatre that supports nuance). But Donizetti is more robust than Bellini and his youthful ringing voice is ideal for this type of role. Christoff Fischesser capably fulfilled the fatherly bass role of Talbot and he soldiered manfully through the director's whims. At first he was dressed as a sympathetic doctor who brings a box of chocolates to Maria (and which she greedily consumes). In her confession scene he dons priestly gear, while she sits on his lap. In the subsequent scene, he caresses her in ways that violate both medical and priestly ethics.

Orchestra and chorus contributed to the strong musical impression. They and solosits received hearty applause - then the audience erupted into equally hearty noises of diapproval for the production team. They smiled bravely throught the storm ("hurray - we're controversial"), but I'm sure they would have preferred to have pleased a larger portion of the audience.

Michael Johnson



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