What’s not on TV: Queen-on-Queen Violence Comes to a Head in COC’s Maria Stuarda

May 7, 2010 Updated: October 1, 2015
(L-R) Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Elisabetta, Queen of England, and Serena Farnocchia as Maria Stuarda in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Maria Stuarda, 2010. (Michael Cooper)
(L-R) Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Elisabetta, Queen of England, and Serena Farnocchia as Maria Stuarda in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Maria Stuarda, 2010. (Michael Cooper)

When an opera is based on history it makes for a great reading opportunity. Before attending the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Maria Stuarda, I took three books out of the library: One about the Tudor monarchy, one about the English nobility of the time, and a biography of Mary Stewart.

I couldn’t put Mary Stewart’s biography down. The COC had the same idea, forming a book club in the run-up to opening night with weekly updates and club member commentary on their website. By opening night everyone was on the same page.

You’ve heard about the inbred, loony and barbaric European nobility of the 16th century. You’ve seen the movies and maybe the CBC mini-series (unless, like me, you don’t watch TV).

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda has a touch of historical truth—definitely of the “stranger than” variety—but is mostly fiction. It is however an effective character sketch of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Its most famous scene is a catfight between two women who, in reality, never met face to face.

The opera itself has an interesting history, having been banned twice. It debuted in 1834 to a post-Napoleon Europe. Decapitating monarchs was touchy subject matter, and queen-on-queen violence was not a good look for an already besmirched royal class. As a result the opera was banned in Naples and later Milan, remaining essentially unheard until 1958.

During the golden era of opera, when this work was written, the focus was not on the composer's overarching narrative but on the voice and its powerful expressive capabilities. The music and plot are vehicles for the primacy of the voice. The notes sung paint a portrait of the characters’ emotions, each an opportunity for the singer to both show off technical skill and emote simultaneously.

Musical characterization is written into these operas. To Italian Catholics, Elizabeth was seen as a temperamental, indecisive, and vengeful heretic (read unmarried Protestant bad girl). Her part is filled with extremes of register, scary angry high notes, and complicated, melismatic phrases. Mary on the other hand is the naive and dependent martyr (read good Catholic girl). Her notes are held longer with fewer extremes in her range. Her songs are sweeter and less complicated.

I always end up liking Elizabeth more. This COC’s production was no exception. I loved Alexandrina Pendatchanska’s Elizabetta. She was on fire, practically spitting. Her voice nimble, and her delivery crisp, she had me on the edge of my seat. I missed her energy in the second act, where Elisabetta really only appears to watch the beheading.

Our Mary Stewart, Serena Farnocchia, has beautiful timbre. Her held notes are luxurious, but the rhythmic precision and dead-on intonation are not always present. She wanted feeling, and failed to give her Maria a defined character. Still, the casting played to the strengths of each woman’s voice, making the production work fairly well overall.

Eric Cutler was a fine Earl of Leicester with a strong, bright and ringing tone. Weston Hurt as Cecil didn’t have the projection or top end frequency in his voice to provide adequate support when singing in ensemble, which made everything a little unstable and flat. Patrick Carfizzi was OK but had the same problem, so projecting over the orchestra was a bit difficult at times.

The direction, the set, and the costumes faithfully supported the music. I found the direction of Stephen Lawless was passable in the first act, but very good in the second. I felt the way he handled the chorus at the end was particularly effective.

Overall, I had a great time. There were a couple of truly magical moments. It played to my conservative side and was opera as I like it best at this phase in my fandom—big costumes, big hair, and, most importantly, big voices!