Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Aidan Lang introduces Donizetti's Tudor Queens

Seattle Opera’s General Director Aidan Lang introduces an intensely powerful operatic tragedy which is new to our company this season. Listen to or read this downloadable podcast to learn more about this intriguing opera, the fascinating real-world inspirations for its characters, and the artists who will be bringing it to life in Seattle.


I’m Aidan Lang, General Director of Seattle Opera. Following on from The Marriage of Figaro we have Maria Stuarda or Mary Stuart as we are calling it here, by Donizetti.

Operas get planned some time in advance; but by one of those quirks of happy fortune, all matters Tudor seem to be all the vogue at the moment on television with The Tudors and Reign and Wolf Hall. So we seem to be quite current in programming Mary Stuart at this time. Why are they popular today? There’s always been a vogue for historical drama; but Tudor history was, to put it mildly, complicated. With all the nefarious goings-on, the murders, the assassinations, the executions, there is a delicious bloodthirstiness. They feed to our sense of delight in all things horrific, but it’s codified in some way by being within a historical context. But politics doesn’t really change. Yes, our politicians don’t assassinate their rivals; but a lot of our drama today is premised on those extremes—stories of extreme passion and extreme motivation.

So this is an opera whose genesis is history—real historical characters onstage—filtered through a play by Schiller, where the climactic scene is something which we know historically did not happen. Despite Mary’s requests, Elizabeth never granted an interview with her. So the two characters never met. And then, filtered through an Italian composer, which inevitably brings in a level of emotion which conditions our response.

Does it matter that this piece is ultimately historically inaccurate and yet it is a historical opera? I don’t think it does. The historical details don’t matter because we are not doing history. History is complex and doesn’t make cogent drama. The history is fascinating; but if we tried to tell it, it would leave the complexity of Figaro far behind. So we get important historical details, like the Babington plot (in which Mary was compromised, the plot to assassinate Elizabeth). It’s just thrown away almost in a one liner. It’s not that Donizetti’s audience knew their Tudor history; but the intensity of: “Ah, remember the Babington plot!” is enough to spur them to understand that something happened.

You don’t go to the theater for a history lesson; you have a sense of the murkiness of Tudor politics, an intuitive feeling for the importance of the events without the need to know the historical detail. The combination of truth, of strong drama serving up a political debate, filtered by introducing an emotional level, which opera inevitably does, gives us a beautiful fusion.

What’s this opera about?
Mary Stuart brings in two powerful women, two queens, two different faiths, and pits them against each other. So it becomes at its heart a very powerful conflict between these two women. The love interest, Leicester, takes a secondary role. We are more used to love being the primary driver; here it is a drama of conflict between two strong women.
This opera‘s emotional appeal lies the difference in characters between Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots. In this period, Europe was in a state of extreme tension on all fronts. We feel those tensions today in the world we live in. These were very real threats. Elizabeth’s father, Henry the VIII, formed the Church of England, a breakaway from the Catholic church of Rome. It is not just a battle of faiths, it’s a battle of faiths locked in with a political battle. The opera works at the emotional level, the conflict of these two characters—but has a far, far greater significance and resonance. And I think today that resonance carries forward. Countries and the ideology ruling that country goes beyond its national borders. We only need look to Syria to see that in practice today. So politics and drama, and politics feeding the drama, is intensely potent.

Here we have an American production of an Italian opera inspired by a German play based on English history. Do people of different nationalities experience this story differently?
It came as a bit of a shock the first time I looked at this piece seriously, as a Brit, to see our glorious Queen Elizabeth portrayed in such a strident and unsympathetic manner. But it makes logical sense from the point of view of the creators of this piece. We [Brits] are used to glorifying Elizabeth as the patron of Shakespeare, the defender of the country from the Spanish Armada, and what this play and this opera cause one to do is to look at it from the outside point of view, from the European standpoint. It is hardly surprising that to a Catholic Italian, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart, is perceived as the sympathetic character.

How would Elizabeth tell this story?
Any drama is based on conflict. There’s two sides to every coin. There is not necessarily a good guy and a bad guy. What this drama does is actually present both sides. Elizabeth had very pressing needs to behave in the way she did, and she sat on the Mary question for 19 years. This was not a spur of the moment decision. Mary was far from blameless herself; she was complicit in her husband’s death, she was in all probability involved, from her prison, in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Elizabeth didn’t want to bring about the execution of her cousin, but Elizabeth is surrounded by courtiers who remind her of her duty as a monarch as opposed to her feelings as a human being. And again, that’s an eternal and highly potent part of any great drama, the conflict between duty and one’s own personal feelings. Elizabeth is…there’s a side of her which is a tragic character because she cannot do what she would want to do.

How would Mary tell the story?
It was a very extraordinary life. Her father died when she was five days old, so she was officially queen of Scotland without really knowing much about it (and spent her youth in France). She would have been brought up in the belief that the rightful way of life was the Catholic faith, not the Protestant faith, which to the Catholics was viewed as a convenience for Henry VIII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. So an entire new church is formed on the whim of the ruling monarch in order to allow his marriage to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother. Mary would have been raised with a fundamental belief that this was wrong; that Catholicism was the true guiding principle on which a country should be founded. We are so used now to religious conflict losing all sense of its true purpose. I think of the conflicts all those years in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and the Protestants where it was not about the faiths; the conflict just fueled its own momentum and people lost track really of what was at root.

This opera is about two women. What about the male characters?
This opera has three male characters; each has a different purpose, each based on history. Lord Cecil is there really as the sort of political conscience to guide Elizabeth. What is the correct decision from a political point of view, from the position of the ongoing power in England?
Lord Talbot’s function in the drama is really the male working for Mary and sympathetic on that court. He is also a man of reason. Talbot is trying to broker a peaceful solution which if it all possible will not result in bloodshed. He doesn’t succeed.
And the third character is the Earl of Leicester, who Donizetti has created as a sort of love interest between the two women. That’s an operatic device designed to bring out an emotional response in the audience.

And that, in many ways is a nice segue to the role of the Schiller play in this piece. This opera is based around a very important play by Friedrich Schiller, at the beginning of the Romantic Movement. His play is a difference between Mary, who is portrayed more in terms of her emotions and feelings, and Elizabeth, who seems to be of the older, eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment view: of reason, of political calculation, as opposed to the free-feeling Mary. And it’s almost like the conflict between these two characters is not only a historical clash, but also a clash between an old order and the new, an eighteenth-century worldview and a new, modern, Romantic worldview. The one where science and logic and order prevail, and the other where emotion and individuality of thought prevail. And that actually segues nicely into an opera. Donizetti’s portrayal takes Elizabeth to a character whose struggle is to balance love and duty; losing reason though an emotional response to losing Leicester. Whereas when we see Mary first, she’s allowed out of Fotheringhay into the park, and nature and the skies feed her imagination. Our first glimpse of her is of a Romantic character (I mean in terms of the Romantic movement), whereas we first see Elizabeth in a political context, always with the burden of duty, and in conflict with her emotions; whereas Mary is portrayed as being a freer spirit. And of course in opera we are always going to side with the free spirit rather than with the person driven by duty.

We see this best in the great climax to Act One, the conflict between Mary and Elizabeth. Mary first of all takes the advisable line of being subservient; but her mistake is to allow her emotions to get in the way of common sense. And when she speaks what she really believes, rather than codify it in some neat political way, that invokes Elizabeth’s rage, and that is her downfall.

What’s different and special about bel canto operas?
We are following Mary Stuart fresh after The Marriage of Figaro, which is a play, and opera, very much geared around plot, action, and events, whereas the dramaturgy of a bel canto opera is very different. That‘s because the prime driver to our experience is, as the name suggests, bel canto, beautiful singing, fine singing. But of course bel canto is more than that. Yes, the vocal line is prime, and the vocal abilities of the performer are very much part of our experience of the piece; but that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The vocal writing, and the way it is carried out by the performer, is part of a musico-dramatic idea. The act of singing—the intensity, the visceral appeal of the singing—is designed to heighten the dramatic moment. The great writers in the bel canto tradition always understood that extreme vocal demands had a dramatic purpose, an expression of the extreme emotion going on within them. So this isn’t just a glorified concert with nice frocks and spectacular voices. This is a very intense drama where that almost primal appeal of the human voice is given a higher level of importance compared, say, to Figaro. The extreme duress of the characters and the situation is the prime driver to that evening. This is more than just a singing competition. This really is using the human voice as an expressive tool to propel an intense drama.

What’s interesting about this work is how contained the vocal exhibitionism is. The discipline of Schiller’s play, maybe subconsciously, drove Donizetti to a disciplined application of the bel canto technique. We think of the classic mad scene from Lucia where the character has lost her reason but is given a very long and extended manifestation of this, far beyond the call of reasonable dramaturgical structure. I would argue that that balance between the appeal of the performer and the dramatic moment is probably slightly out of kilter in Lucia: while we are being dazzled, we lose track for a moment of the situation. Whereas, here in Mary Stuart, the vocal demands are always keyed in with the dramatic demands of the scene. I don’t think you come away from Mary Stuart thinking, “Weren’t those two singers so magnificent?” to quite the degree that you do when you come away from a great performance of Sonnambula or Lucia di Lammermoor.

Maybe this has fueled the popularity of Lucia compared to an opera like Maria Stuarda. Although what’s interesting is how this, and Anna Bolena, and Roberto Devereux have suddenly come into currency. All three of the operas have been played very successfully, sometimes as a trilogy, sometimes individually, in other theaters around the States. Dallas has a different cycle of the three operas and the Met is playing all three this season. They come across as very strong plays which appeal to our audiences today.

Tell us a little about our production.
Making her Seattle Opera debut is Serena Farnocchia as Maria. She has done this role before. She is one of those singers who is a really selfless singer; she throws herself totally into the role, has a wonderful vocal technique and a wonderful range of vocal colors, which this role needs. She is capable of singing with great delicacy and beauty and also providing at the same time the necessary strength of character and of command of the vocal line where needed.
Her foil is Mary Elizabeth Williams as Elizabeth, a much admired and popular singer here at Seattle Opera. Elizabeth needs a kind of icy clarity to its singing, and I think this is a role which suits Mary Elizabeth extremely well. We are going to have no problems at all with her force of personality, that we know, but in this sort of music you can’t get by just on that. It needs a precision and brilliance of singing which she will certainly bring to the role.

Of course we have two casts. It was therefore a delicious challenge to find singers of the same vocal ability for our alternate cast. We are again very, very fortunate, in Keri Alkema and Joyce El-Khoury, to have two singers who I think are different temperaments but each totally in command of the vocal requirements of the role. One of the fascinations, for some of our audience, is to see both casts and see how different they are and yet totally valid in terms of their vocal and physical manifestations.
The role of Leicester is shared by John Tessier, whom we saw most recently as Nadir in The Pearl Fishers, and a young singer making his Seattle Opera debut: Andrew Owens. Andrew is a very exciting singer who specializes in Rossini. John, as we saw in his beautiful, elegant, and lyrical Nadir, brings maybe more of that quality to the role. It’s a fascinating role because it is so pivotal. The character sits on the cusp of moving from what one could, slightly tongue in cheek, call the “Don Ottavio tenor,” positioning as the ‘decent chap,’ towards the more heroic role for the tenor, which we see in later Donizetti and Verdi. In later Italian opera, the tenor becomes the driving force; here he is nearly there, but not quite.

The other two male roles: Michael Todd Simpson, playing Lord Cecil, was last seen with us in The Consul. That role needs someone having the vocal presence to convey a minister of state. Also, the character is wily and clever and therefore requires a singer who is alert to the textual nuance in order to bring out the intent of the character with relatively limited vocal opportunity. Lord Talbot, played by Weston Hurt, who we saw earlier this year as Nabucco, requires slightly more gentle singing, more use of legato, and also a more sympathetic character; one who’s playing a fine line politically, in the political chess game which is this piece.

It’s always a great pleasure to welcome back Carlo Montanaro. This music is in his blood, as we saw from Nabucco. He understands the pulse of the drama. He is very much what I call a singer’s conductor, by which I mean that he finds a beautiful balance between accompanying, allowing the individuality of a singer, and yet being there to support them. I know all the singers really enjoyed working with him in Nabucco. An unexpected plus out of that configuration we did with Nabucco, by placing the singers forward and the orchestra behind, was to see how a conductor really molds a performance. So you can see very clearly how he accompanies: he brings his incredible enthusiasm and passion to it; but that doesn’t get in the way. He’s actually always serving the drama and serving the vocal line.

We made the decision not to create a new Seattle Opera production of this work, but to rent one. This one from Minnesota was not the only one available. What I liked about Kevin Newbury’s production was the way he and his design team have managed to bring what I call a visual rhythm to the piece. Any drama has a beginning, middle and an end, and a good production steers you from one phase to the next. I felt that Kevin does this especially well. Through his scenic approach we get the sense of these events unfolding inexorably. And I felt that was important, rather than a production which sat still for moments and then moved in measured steps. This one has a movement and propulsion which greatly helps the evening.

Learn more about Mary Stuart from our Seattle Opera Spotlight.

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