Mary Stuart at Seattle Opera: Why Are We Doing This?

T.s. Flock
Posted on March 02, 2016, 9:00 am
14 mins

There is a simple reason that Donizetti’s Mary Stuart was infrequently produced for many years: It’s not a good opera. The libretto is weak and the music is unmemorable. Donizetti wrote in the bel canto style, emphasizing the power and range of the human voice, which works best with a comedic opera that swings from frisky to melodramatic (such as his La fille du régiment), or a suspenseful thriller that builds to a surreal climax (Lucia di Lammermoor). The dull plot and pacing of Mary Stuart doesn’t allow for any of that. One plods with Mary to the headsman’s block, and never quickly enough.

To this extent, Seattle Opera’s latest production is just what this opera deserves: Uninspired, dreary, bordering on torturous. That also makes it consistent with the general output this season. I honestly thought Seattle Opera wouldn’t do worse than Nabucco, which suffered from some of the most heinous blocking I’ve ever seen. That production, however, at least took some risks. None of them paid off; the orchestra on stage contributed to the blocking issues, while the costuming and set design (if you can call it that) were aesthetically incoherent. Nabucco, too, is a C-grade libretto, and the already dull, low-stakes plot was made worse by diffuse staging that made everything just feel aimless. This lack of affect was repeated in Mary Stuart.

At least soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille in Nabucco was a shining point. She was the only one who appeared to have any talent for acting and her voice was formidable. Her co-stars gave her nothing to work with and it was exasperating to watch. In Mary Stuart, Williams takes the lead as Queen Elizabeth and again sounds good, but even though there was a little more acting from the cast as a whole, it looked unrehearsed and vacant. Everyone from the chorus to the principle performers looked befuddled as to where they were and how they got there.

Indeed, how did they get there? Why is Seattle Opera doing third-rate libretti, especially in this transitional period when the new general director Aidan Lang is just getting established? Perhaps it was viewed as the best time to bring in a range of creative teams to work with Lang. Perhaps it was meant to appeal to opera lovers who are curious to see local premieres and more obscure works.

But why these operas? Mary Stuart has seen a few revivals around the world in recent years, which I hope is not a sign that it will enter into standard repertoires. I can attribute it to a faddish interest in period dramas related to the Tudors and Stuarts and just hope it all dies down, because there are dozens of superior operas that don’t get a lot of play. If one doesn’t mind the dated Orientalism of works like Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (presented earlier this season with soporific ease), why not bring Lakmé, too? Seattle Opera has only produced it twice (1967 and 2000) and it remains a lesser known work, despite “The Flower Duet” popping up in commercials and pop culture. If you want an early Verdi work that is rarely produced on the west coast, I’d skip Nabucco and go back to Ernani, last performed here in the 90s. Even The Met only does that one every two decades or so.

Mind you, I am not saying that lesser works should never be performed. The Met has done gorgeous productions of Mary Stuart that allow you to forget for a moment how subpar the material actually is, but where this work really belongs is in chamber operas where the stakes are lower, the space is more intimate and people can experiment. Mary Stuart is a perfect example of something that would benefit from tighter quarters, as the action is limited and confined to prisons and courtly chambers. If you are going to polish a dud for the big stage, however, you need to work thrice as hard—and I know that just isn’t going to happen at a company of this size for this kind of work.

It would be folly to spend extravagantly on a work that probably won’t enter the repertoire, and the sparse “modernity” of the design choices in Mary Stuart accordingly appear to have been made on a budget…with the exception of its most garish feature: A giant depiction of the Ascension of Mary, which descends from the coffered ceiling at two points in the performance. I must confess that I do not know who the original artist was, but judging by the composition I would guess that the edges had been cropped off (utterly distasteful if true) and pressed into its ugly framing wall so that it bows out at the crowd. It was hideous as an object, and it seems that all of this mutilation of the original work was to get the dimensions just wrong enough so that the head of the Virgin would be in effect lopped off by the ceiling. That’s right: The physical centerpiece of the performance was a terrible visual pun. Mary Stuart’s religious namesake may be an apt symbol of her Catholic loyalties (the more actual, historical reason for her imprisonment and death), but the connections end there and to attempt to draw one this way just looks illiterate—even a little offensive.

Set designer Neil Patel went all in on this grotesquerie and nothing else. The other key props were two staircases—one stately and baroque, one spare and barred—which were used with Elizabeth and Mary respectively. The chorus moved this objects with some facility, giving them a momentary sense of purpose on stage, but it all looked very “community theatre,” as did the men’s costumes. As for the queens’ costumes, they were never truly impressive, but at least better than the rest.

The same could be said of their singing. Joyce El-Khoury as Mary did well with the difficult breath control and technique required by the role, but the high notes were often pinched and up in the chest. Softer portions became almost inaudible. However, when it came to disappearing entirely in pianissimi sections, tenor John Tessier had her beat as Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. His whole performance was slack, which is unfortunate because one might have at least forgiven the anti-historical, hysterical liberties taken with the story if Leicester had a more compelling presence.

Indeed, the whole enterprise of the opera (like Mary herself) is doomed from the outset to any audience that knows history. The libretto of Mary Stuart was written by Giuseppe Bardari and based on an earlier play by Friedrich Schiller. In these tellings, Mary and Elizabeth actually confront each other in person and the Earl of Leicester is made into a peaceable advocate for Mary to the end. In fact, the two queens never met in the 19 years of Mary’s imprisonment, and though Leicester was sympathetic for many years, he was one of the major advocates for Mary’s execution at the end. In Bardari’s telling, Leicester has actually fallen in love with Mary and his affections for her are part of her undoing thanks to the jealousy of Elizabeth.

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Hannah (Renee Rapier) and Mary Stuart (Joyce El-Khoury). Photo by Philip Newton.

Never mind that there had been decades of intrigue, strife, war and religious uprisings because of competing forces surrounding the two queens. Never mind that Mary spent 19 years imprisoned, the majority of her adult life, until the Babington Plot (to kill Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne) made it clear that as long as Mary lived, Elizabeth would be in danger. Never mind all of that: In Mary Stuart, it’s a cat-fight over a man that spells doom for her. And when the man on stage is a meek milquetoast with bad posture, we’re left to ask “Why?” yet again. And again. And again.

It’s in that fatal moment that closes Act I that the Seattle Opera production shows its weakness in every aspect. While Williams as Elizabeth paces about imperiously, goading her rival, El-Khoury’s Mary is mostly static, biting her tongue and making inward remarks. It’s tepid, but also confusing; at first one can barely separate dialogue from interior monologue as the dramatic movement and lighting actually obscured these transitions. Eventually, one glazes over and just starts seeing missed opportunities. For example, in the void of an actual set, Elizabeth’s shadow could loom large and imposing over Mary and the onlookers with more strategic lighting. Instead, lighting designer D.M. Wood relied on harsh spotlighting that further desaturated the scene, sucking the last vestige of drama from it. This is the climax of the story, but like everything else it just felt pointless.

The whole of Act II is a meandering denouement. If viewers are to be invested in it, they have to be hooked in Act I. That didn’t happen here, of course.

Elizabeth expresses hesitation, then remorse as she signs off on the regicide of her cousin. She presses mournfully against that butchered portrait of The Virgin Mary before exiting solemnly. Mary makes her peace with peripheral characters. The inaccuracies continue to pile up, and then, suddenly, it’s over. Amen.

It’s almost unthinkable that the same composer who created the soaring madness of Lucia di Lammermoor‘s final moments also made this funereal bore. In some ways, there is really no saving it from itself, but Seattle Opera did the work no favors with this production. We are left to wonder why it happened at all.

On the bright side, I still expect good things from Lang’s leadership in the coming year. His directorial debut this year, The Marriage of Figaro, was certainly the best of this season. The 2016/17 season has a nice mix of warhorses and lesser known works, starting with Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, the composer’s final comic opera and one of those wild card pieces that you don’t see too often. This will be a premiere for Seattle Opera, so I’m not questioning why they are doing it. The question for that one is, “Will they make an effort?”

Mary Stuart continues through March 12 at Seattle Opera.

T.s. Flock
T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.