By Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Bardari
Watched last night via the Met HD’s broadcasts.
Queen Elizabeth I of England is plagued with the problem of her cousin and prisoner Mary, Queen of Scots. Her wrath is endlessly provoked by Mary’s stubborn pride and her jealousy that the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, loves Mary more than Elizabeth. Elizabeth is torn between eliminating her rival and preserving the sanctity of anointed queens. Whatever she chooses will have ramifications that will both help and harm her crown – if she preserves Mary’s life, the Scottish queen remains a contender for the English throne; if she executes Mary, Elizabeth sets a precedent for the removal of an anointed queen, endangering her own throne. For over fifteen years, Queen Mary remains imprisoned as Queen Elizabeth procrastinates and avoids the decision.
Queen Elizabeth (red) and Queen Mary (black)
The two queens could not be more different. Elizabeth I, played by Elza van den Heever in her Met debut, is a mannish woman who moves in a slow, deliberate stride that imitates, one imagines, the movements of her powerful father, Henry VIII. Her gowns create bulk, emphasizing her strength in a very physical, powerful manner. As she grows older, Elizabeth becomes Gloriana, a standardized icon for the English. She becomes larger-than-life through directing her passion toward protecting her throne, and this drive is what eventually gives her the strength to sign Mary’s execution order. Only Elizabeth’s constantly moving fingers reveal the turmoil that tears at her inside.
By contrast, Mary diminishes as the years pass. At the beginning of the opera, she is a beautiful young woman, but as the years pass she ages in prison. As Elizabeth grows older and displays her power through costume, growing larger and more sculptural with the years, Mary’s womanhood is emphasized all the more. She may be physically weak, wearing a plain black dress with her long hair streaming sloppily down her back, but her mind and her spirit remain unbroken. While Elizabeth’s uncertainty torments her, Mary has found consolation in her Catholic faith, and when the news arrives that she will be executed she is at peace. Joyce DiDonato is a wonderful Mary Stuart. She captures the queen’s girlish enthusiasm at the beginning and transforms into a world-weary prisoner of the final act.
Both women were wonderful singers, and the way they played off of each other made the opera – a familiar story to Tudor fans – fresh and dramatic. It was a great show.