Maria, Violetta and Opera Queens


Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda about to lose her head (by Bill Cooper)

Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda about to lose her head (by Bill Cooper)

One of my greatest regrets is that I failed to see Maria Callas at Covent Garden in 1962 and 1964. The truth is that, at the time, tickets seemed very expensive to me (I was only 21 in 1962, and only visiting Britain from the US, though I was at university in London in 1964); and it never occurred to me that it might be my last chance to see a live performance by the greatest singer of our time.

I like to feel I’ve made up for my historic aesthetic blunder by seeing Joyce DiDonato at the Royal Opera last year as Elena in La donna del lago and this season in the title role of Maria Stuarda. It’s rare, but sometimes you feel you’ve seen a performance that will be remembered by posterity; and Ms DiDonato’s Mary Queen of Scots was one such.

As its centre, taken by Donizetti’s librettist from Schiller’s play, is the wholly fictitious meeting between her and her sister Queen Elizabeth I. Donizetti’s opera shows us history as it ought to have happened for best dramatic effect, ignoring the well known facts. But what an opportunity the piece gives Ms DiDonato to show off her masterly vocal technique, the sheer beauty of her mezzo voice and the acting talent that could have made her a movie star if she hadn’t chosen the more difficult career. This could be a description of Callas, except that Ms DiDonato has a more secure sense of pitch.

Her coloratura passages are laser-precise, even her trills are unblurred, and her legato is silky smooth and even. Her phrasing is careful and imaginative, without calling attention to itself – yet it feels particularly well thought-out and intelligent. It all seems so natural, even easy: the listener feels certain this is exactly what the composer intended, which is why this was probably the best performance of a bel canto opera I have ever heard. I shan’t mention the rest of the cast, save for Carmen Giannattasio, the Italian soprano who sang Elisabetta I, as they were all excellent.

Of course this pleasure came at a price: the egregiously silly production by directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. One detail will give you the idea: only the two queens were in period costume; the rest of the cast were dressed in contemporary suit-and-tie banality – a “concept” that should have been strangled at birth. At least the French conductor Bertrand de Billy played it straight and the orchestra played as magnificently as Ms DiDonato deserved.

If the world’s greatest living bel canto artist is American, the nationality of Venera Gimadieva, the soprano who sings Violetta in Tom Cairns’s new production of La traviata at Glyndebourne, slightly evades me. Some reviews have said she hails from Kazakhstan (a place I know a little – her surname is not typical), and she definitely trained at the Kazan conservatory (but that is in Tatarstan), so we’ll settle for Russian.

With what I thought tact and subtlety, Mr Cairns hints, by having Violetta dimly shown on her sickbed during the overture, that what follows (up to the point of her deathbed scene, of course) is the courtesan’s reminiscences of her life. Like the drowning man whose life flashes in font of him, she is remembering everything from her first meeting with Alfredo. It’s tactful, because it’s merely suggested, and we’re not bludgeoned with the “concept.” As the overture ends, the lighting changes and Violetta rises from her bed, we see she’s in evening dress and hosts her grand party.

We know from the programme notes that Mr Cairns has a modest agenda. He wants only to see everything at an angle of insecurity, to show that the characters are on a less solid footing than most post-1880s “realistic” productions presume.

So Hildegard Bechtler’s costumes are of no particular period. The female guests at Violetta’s party seem to come from back numbers of Vogue dating from the 1920s on, and the men are dressed equally uniformly – but why, in his initial appearance, is Alfredo (American Michael Fabiano, who has a clean, strong tenor voice) costumed as Sky Masterson? (Violetta is clearly no Salvation Army supporter.) Ms Bechtler’s sets are more successful, more or less divided into three parts with the right-hand side being a huge, quilted wall, whose colour changes, which gives an air of painterly abstraction to the sets.

Mr Cairns could perhaps remind his cast of the cardinal rule of opera, and get them to remember to look at the person to whom they are singing, and not sing to the audience – except when making a point that requires them to do so. On the other hand, in the final scene Ms Gimadieva and Michael Fabiano (who is a sexy, credible Alfredo) do –mostly – remember to look into each other’s eyes, and not into mine in Row M of the stalls.

At first I did not like the quality of Ms Gimadieva’s voice. It had a touch of Russian-soprano harshness, especially in the ff passages in the brindisi. But then she had a piano phrase, and she floated it delicately, while projecting it to the furthest seat in the Glyndebourne opera house – and my resistance melted away. Suddenly I felt she was born to sing Violetta, and she could do no wrong. I admit it: I blubbed all the way though the rest of the opera. Mr Faniano contributed to this, too; but, as usual, the third-handkerchief credit belongs to Germont père (Tassis Christoyannis). Whatever else Mr Cairns and his cast and Mark Elder and his orchestra have done, they have put together the most emotionally wrenching Traviata imaginable.


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  1. ariel says

    When on reading your comments one comes to “last chance to see a live performance by the greatest singer of our time” one can only sigh and think another one who seems not to have the slightest
    inkling as to the art of singing .,and how he
    does wax poetic with so little understanding.
    As to the greatest whatever that implies, Mr.
    Levy may start off in understanding the
    art of singing with great singers such as Ewa Podles and if one must recall the past
    Souzay . Callas was a personality who
    knew how to play the great diva ,no one who understands the art would ever call her a great singer.

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