MARIA STUARDA. Melbourne Opera, Saturday September 9, 2023. Athenæum Theatre, Melbourne.
Music — Gaetano Donizetti; Libretto — Giuseppe Bardari; Based on the play “Maria Stuart” by Friedrich Schiller; (as translated into Italian by Andrea Maffei)
Conductor — Raymond Lawrence; Director — Suzanne Chaundy (allegedly)
Music: 1 * (for some of the singing)
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No artist or arts organization ever evolved in an echo chamber of sycophancy and pandering. No one is required to agree with a critic’s opinion (which is all a review is), but to cut oneself off from informed perspectives that do not pile on the praise strikes us as a perfect recipe to stagnate artistically. To silence dissenting voices in the pursuit of engineered uniformity of praise strikes us as shattering that principle with a vengeance, and we fail to see how such an approach can be to anything other than the detriment of the form itself, its practitioners, and its audience. Believing yourself worthy of being spared bad reviews is Entitlement 101, and seeking to manipulate the discourse and create this kind of landscape yourself is the self-inflicted death knell of critical self-examination and creative evolution.
In the last few weeks this critic has enjoyed the generosity of Victorian Opera in the form of wholly unexpected but happily and gratefully received complimentary tickets to their concert performances of Capriccio and Bravo Bellini, and been surprised and delighted in equal measure to receive an invitation from an emerging group of young up-and-coming artists called the Forest Collective to review their concert presentation of the contemporary American chamber opera Black Water — an unsolicited invitation which by its very nature suggests a professional maturity and open-mindedness that belies their apparent youth.
Only positive press
By contrast, Melbourne Opera, who are the subject of this review, has, in the same few weeks, consistently refused to return Opera Gazet’s emails requesting press tickets to Maria Stuarda” forcing us to purchase our own and review it anyway. We have had previous dealings with Melbourne Opera and its apparently quite fervent determination to engineer only positive press for the company and its efforts, and the suspicion hangs upon us that this recent radio silence, and the manifest professional discourteousness it represents, are continuing missives in an ongoing battle between company and critic over the very purpose of professional criticism.
But to the matter at hand.
Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda is a fairly basic beast… a resolutely straightforward bel canto tragedy with many showpiece moments for a pair of dueling divas. With an entirely formulaic structure (“this bit, then that bit, then another bit”), it sits at the far fringes of the core repertoire for good reason. It’s far from poor, but it’s also far from great. It is, to quote the great Martin Bernheimer, “stalwart and completely dependable, but hardly one to set the imagination on fire.”
In the cozy confines of the Athenæum Theatre, which more closely approximates the atmosphere of a court theatre than a grand opera house, it had the chance, with an actual director at the helm, to be a searing and deeply affecting chamber drama exploring sexual jealousy and the willfulness and petulance that can often lay at the heart of so much political intrigue in the corridors of power.
Helena Dix, fresh from triumphs abroad, was the evening’s star, and didn’t she know it. She spun her pianissimi and belted her canto at every turn and took up every opportunity to shine. Did she overindulge herself? Sure. Was she melodrama’s star pupil, especially in the closing scenes where she had little else to work with but the spotlight and the score? Absolutely. Was any of this unwarranted? Not a jot. She had the title role and the spotlight, and she went straight for the jugular. She sang ravishingly, did what she could with no direction at all, and emerged triumphant.
A dangerously close second in the diva darling stakes was Eleanor Greenwood’s Elisabetta. With as many fortissimi as Dix had pianissimi, and a commitment to the drama that would be useful to a director with a clue how to channel it, she came the closest of anyone onstage to creating a consistently credible human being.
Christopher Hillier was a fine Talbot, with solid tone across a pleasing lyric baritone, and a lovely feel for the bel canto style. Henry Choo as Leicester had some distress in alt early on, but otherwise sang pleasingly, with a sweet tone, and is an enthusiastic actor. Eddie Muliaumaseali’i also overcame some rough vocal moments on opening night, especially in the second half, to otherwise effortlessly present a commanding Cecil, even if, like everyone else, he was given not a thing to do with the role.
And it’s here that we perhaps need to address the evening’s elephant in the room.
Suzanne Chaundy’s credit as director appeared to be nominal at best. Her “direction” meandered listlessly from perfunctory to non-existent, risibly boasting a seemingly inexhaustible supply of stone dead, egg-on-face navel-gazing during transitions from recitative to number, a veritable mountain of motiveless and uninformed to-ing & fro-ing from the principals, and chorus scenes presented in bland-and-deliver concert form rather than anything approaching an actual crowd scene. And this was on top of the gaping holes in rudimentary, entry level stagecraft — inconsistencies atop anachronisms atop hamfistedness. The evening emerged as a deeply frustrating exercise in the all-pervading “that’ll do”-ism that beleaguers opera production here and abroad, and which, sadly, seems to be Melbourne Opera’s signature style.
Why was Maria dressed to the nines, fit for court audience or a cotillion, while she’s “nella polvere e nel rossor”? Why was her abject disgrace not rendered in costume form? Complete with cloak and perfectly coiffed hair, she looked ready for race day rather than execution. There was no consistency of access into her cell, with random cast members entering and exiting through no fewer than three distinct parts of the wings, all while a perfectly good door had been provided in the scenery. Known allies, such as Leicester, were incongruously able to enter her cell fully armed. And the execution order itself (the actual piece of paper) was treated like an afterthought as a prop and not the nuclear missile of policy it is spoken of being. And so on…
With so much elementary stagecraft begging for any kind of attention, what hope did the human drama have? Conductor and orchestra were entirely dependable, despite the occasional flub in the playing, which we’ve come to expect with this company in any case.
At least we got the program for free.