NEW YORK—The audience issued a collective groan when an announcer stepped on stage before the first performance this season of “Maria Stuarda.” He said that the star, Sondra Radvanovsky, was battling a cold but would go on anyway and asked for the audience’s indulgence. If he had not made the announcement, no one would have suspected that the soprano had any health issues because she sang this demanding music, which includes coloratura runs, pianissimos, and so on, with beauty and skill and the most powerful voice on stage. She also acted with her usual intensity, delivering a moving portrayal of the doomed Maria.
Gaetano Donizetti’s 1834 opera is based on Friedrich Schiller’s play “Mary Stuart” about the conflict between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, also known as Mary, Queen of Scots, the title character of the opera. The work is one of the composer’s three Tudor queen operas; the others are “Anna Bolena,” which the Met produced earlier in the season, and “Roberto Devereux.”
This is the first time that the Met is presenting one singer in all three operas, and no one is better equipped for this daunting challenge than Radvanovsky.
“Maria Stuarda” is a tragedy about the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary. The royals, who were cousins, could not have been more different. The first was Protestant, known as the “virgin queen,” and the second was Catholic and had been married three times.
The two had an inherent conflict since some viewed Elizabeth (Elisabetta in the opera) as illegitimate and Mary as the rightful heir to the throne. Mary had been forced to flee from Scotland after the rebellion of the nobles there and sought asylum in England. However, her cousin had her imprisoned for a number of years.
The opera begins in the English court where the brother of the king of France is seeking, without success, to marry Elizabeth. The queen is in love with Robert (Roberto) Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, but fears that he harbors feelings for Mary. Dudley secretly agrees with Mary’s custodian, Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, to seek Mary’s release and convinces the queen to ride on a hunt near Mary’s prison.
The meeting between the two queens never occurred in real life. It was the creation of Schiller and is incorporated into the opera, in which it is the dramatic high point. Mary is walking freely in the park outside Fotheringhay Castle, where she is incarcerated when she hears that Elizabeth is approaching. Dudley goes ahead of the others and urges Mary to be humble in order to obtain her release.
The meeting is a disaster. Elizabeth accuses Mary of treason, murder (of her second husband), and licentiousness. Mary then loses her temper and calls the queen illegitimate and other names, after which Elizabeth has her cousin sent back to prison.
Cecil, Elizabeth’s secretary of state, produces evidence that implicates Mary in a plot to assassinate the queen and convinces her to sign a death warrant for her cousin. When Dudley finds out, he tries to talk Elizabeth into rescinding the order, but instead the queen commands him to attend the execution.
At Fotheringhay Castle, Mary is told that she will die the next morning. She is refused permission to confess to a Catholic priest but finally she unburdens her soul to Talbot, including her unwitting acquiescence in an assassination plan. As she is about to be beheaded, she urges her servants not to shed tears and leads them in prayer. Mary tells Cecil that she forgives her cousin. Appearing as a martyr, dressed in red, she ascends the scaffold.
Radvanovsky won the largest ovations in both acts of the opera, but the rest of the cast was strong as well. South African soprano Elza van den Heever, who had played Elisabetta previously at the Met, again makes the ruler a scary villain.
Tenor Celso Albelo is making his Met debut as Leicester, and he sang with a bright Italianate voice and considerable style. Whether he can act remains to be seen.
Patrick Carfizzi as Cecil and Kwangchul Youn as Talbot both gave noteworthy performances.
Sir David McVicar’s production is conventional, yet effective. Rather than indulge in flashy effects, McVicar, with set and costume designer John Macfarlane, concentrates on conveying the text. You won’t applaud the scenery, but you will be swept along by the music and drama.
The Met chorus and orchestra under the direction of Riccardo Frizza performed up to their high standards.
Tickets: 212-362-6000, or MetOpera.org
Closes: Feb. 20
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.