This work was composed around the same time as Lucia di Lamermoor, being completed in 1835, and although it does not have quite the same continuous melodic flow as Lucia, nevertheless the work abounds with melody and drama to compensate. In comparing this to other operas of Donizetti, it should be noted that from 1839 his style was further enriched by fuller orchestration and subtler, more varied harmony. However many of his most popular operas, such as Anna Bolena, L'elisir d'amore, Lucrezia Borgia, and Lucia, among others, come from this period.
This production of what would appear in a list of his best operas, Maria Stuarda, took place on the huge open air stage of the Arena Sferisterio in Macerata, Italy as a festival production in 2007 before an audience of 6,000. The nature of the stage prohibits conventional settings, but effective use is made of a constructed performance space of ramps and stairways etc. This set remains the same throughout the entire opera and is used, in conjunction with excellent lighting design, to good effect.
Maria Pia Piscitelli was a last-minute substitution for the coloratura soprano role of Elizabeth. While vocally, she is a little tentative just at the beginning, she quickly gets into her stride, revealing impressive depths of dramatic vocal resource and variety of tonal expression and colour -- the ideal of a good belcantist. Her acting and vocal strengths are outstanding in act two in the confrontation scene with Maria Stuarda as it reaches hair raising levels in both sung and acted intensity.
Of course, such scenes cannot be successful unless the mezzo is of matching ability, and Laura Polverelli certainly provides that. She sings with smooth legato, an excellent range of vocal colour and expression, and like her soprano colleague, with excellent diction. Also, she is no slouch in her acting. Together, these two performers are beautifully balanced in the lead female roles, and should not be missed.
Roberto De Basio, as Leicester, has a bright, secure, and pleasing Italianate tone, and with sensitive phrasing, a good range of expression and tonal colour, his interpretation is totally convincing. A name unknown to me, he warrants keeping note of his appearances as he is well on the path to greater fame.
It is impossible to review everyone's contribution, but every role is performed with a high standard both vocally and dramatically. Chorus, orchestra, and recorded sound are all outstanding. Conductor Riccardo Frizza shows a firm grasp of Donizetti's score, fully realizing both the fine detail and the total arc of the work. I have seen better video direction however, the effort here being perhaps a little too busy. Nonetheless, it still provides an acceptable presentation of the first-class performance being recorded.
Despite Piscitelli's slihtly tentative start, all aspects of this production knit together in a well-conceived whole, revealing the beauty of the score and the drama of this turbulent period in British history.
ADDENDUM Aug 22. I have since acquired Tagliablue's production from La Scala. It also, is finely sung, but in total, I think this production just has the edge. Cearly, performance, both vocally and dramatically (and orchestrally) must take precedence in a review, and I think this emerges the victor by a fine margin.
However, visual aspects impinge on the drama, and the wire-mesh "set" at La Scala, in my view, clashes horribly and is nowhere near as satisfactory as the neutral performance space seen here. Also, the La Scala costumes are not adequate overall, some being quite ugly. Ultimately, this production under review, coming back to the opera itself, shows more unity of concept, which is carried through in the performance and staging. A highly satisfying production with which I suspect Donizetti would have been greatly pleased. I suggest this release has taken over first position in the DVD stakes.
ADDENDUM Sept 11. The review was based on hearing/seeing the DVD on a system that lacked surroundf sound facilities. But the stereo sound from the avalable equipment was excellent. I have since acquired my own copy, and find that the surround sound-tracks (Dolby and DTS) are missing. Whether this applies just to a batch or to all copies, I don't know. I have been in contact with Naxos, and, based on my information, they are remanufacturing the DVD. It is worth waiting for. The stereo sound was excellent, and, from experience with other Naxos opera releases, this presages outstanding surround, high-performance, tracks.
ADDENDUM NOV 28 I have received another copy direct from Naxos which proved to still lack the 5.1 Dolby and DTS sound tracks (confirmed by computer examination of the DVD's file structure). On informing Naxos they have replied that they are sending me another copy (this makes it about 4) which they will open and check that all files are intact. So, if you are interested in purchasing this excellent DVD and these sound options are important to you (I must comment that the stereo sound is excellent), have the store check your item before accepting it.
ADDENDUM DEC 8 Naxos have kindly sent me a copy with all sound files intact. Sound quality in both Dolby 5.1 and DTS is, as expected, beyond reproach. As usual, surround sound makes a definite positive contribution to the enjoyment of the music and the performance.