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A rare treat

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
05/01/2010 -  & May 4*, 10, 13, 22, 26, 28, 30, 2010
Gaetano Donizetti: Maria Stuarda
Serena Farnocchia (Maria Stuarda), Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Elisabetta), Eric Cutler (Roberto, Earl of Leicester), Patrick Carfizzi (Giorgio Talbot), Weston Hurt (Lord Guglielmo Cecil), Simone Osborne/Ileana Montalbetti* (Anna Kennedy)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Antony Walker (Conductor)
Stephen Lawless (Director), Benoît Dugardyn (Set Designer), Ingeborg Bernerth (Costume Designer), Mark McCullough (Lighting Designer)

A. Pendatchanska, S. Farnocchia (© Michael Cooper)

The COC’s production of Maria Stuarda, borrowed from Dallas Opera, is both visually and musically a class act. The distinguished-looking set consists of a performing platform backed by a semi-circular, three-tiered gallery (much like that in an Elizabethan theatre, such as Shakespeare’s Globe). The opera was performed in Texas in 2007, and the set will eventually be used there for all three of Donizetti’s “Tudor Trilogy”.

The plot is a simple one, based to a degree on history and on Friederich Schiller’s drama. Queen Elizabeth of England, her reign threatened by religion-fueled plots, did have her cousin, the exiled Queen of Scotland, executed. In the play and opera they have a stormy meeting - this never actually occurred. The opera also has a love triangle, with the Earl of Leicester, loved by Elizabeth, in love with Mary. It also shows her jailor, George Talbot, as being in Mary’s camp. A history lesson it is not; but as an excuse for wonderful singing in a dramatic context, it succeeds admirably.

There are two prime donne in this opera and, of course, the listener wants a contrast between the two voices. A mezzo or dramatic soprano often takes the shorter of the two roles, that of the imperious but conflicted Regina Elisabetta, leaving the role of Maria to a soprano with a more delicate sound. In this production we have two sopranos, and the Elisabetta, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, has the lighter lyrical sound in contrast to the more spinto sound of Serena Farnocchia. (Ms Farnocchia is making a welcome return to the COC, having sung Luisa Miller here in 2007).

At first hearing, Ms. Pendatchanska’s voice seems a size too small for the role, but she grows in both vocal and dramatic stature as the evening progresses. She holds her own in the big confrontation scene, where it is made clear that each of the queens is playing to the assembled gallery. In the following scene, when Elisabetta signs the execution order, she fully demonstrates the queen’s anguish. The role demands some challenging low notes which Ms. Pendatchanska handles impressively.

The title role is extremely demanding. Maria’s final scene (actually two scenes separated by a number for the chorus), goes on for more than 40 minutes. She is informed of her impending execution and, in various passages, expresses despair, anger, defiance, and remorse. Serena Farnocchia negotiates this vocal marathon with apparent ease, giving just the right nuance and weight to each contrasting mood.

Eric Cutler is vocally exactly right for the role of Leicester, plus he manages to bring off the elaborate aristocratic fashions of the day. Being tall probably helps.

Patrick Carfizzi gives a punchy performance as Giorgio Talbot, Maria’s sympathetic jailor who also turns out (in this production) to be a priest as he hears her final confession.

The comprimario roles of Lord Guglielmo Cecil (Maria’s enemy) and Anna Kennedy (Maria’s companion) are also well taken, by Weston Hurt and Ileana Montalbetti respectively.

Debuting conductor Antony Walker has obviously made best use of the COC’s policy of careful preparation for each production. Musically, everything falls naturally into place.

Sumptuous costumes are always pleasing to an audience, but too much velvet and swag can stifle the drama. Happily this pitfall is avoided thanks to staging that focuses on the essentials.

One directorial gambit, however, is puzzling: during Maria’s lengthy final scene, her followers voice their distress at her plight and some of them remove their Elizabethan costumes, revealing their modern workaday clothing underneath. It’s not as if they are rending their garments in grief. An earlier and more effective dramatic touch had menacing half-man, half-beast figures symbolizing both the hunt (referred to when Maria makes her first appearance) and her dire situation.

This opera doesn’t appear all that frequently. We are fortunate that it has received such a worthy - even distinguished - production.

Michael Johnson



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