La Scena Musicale

Friday, 14 May 2010

COC brings out the best in Maria Stuarda

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Donizetti's 43rd opera, the fictional historical tragedy Maria Stuarda, doesn't exactly have all the right ingredients for an all-time favourite. Its plot drags, its music awkwardly cheerful in character, and its male lead a spineless hero who is hardly a match for one queen never mind two.

So it was a delight to see the Canadian Opera Company take on this relatively dull work on May 10 and be smitten with the Shakespearean, Elizabethan production that was created for the Dallas Opera by director Stephen Lawless and set designer Benoit Dugardyn.

The gloves came off at one point and an Elizabethan-style cat fight took place between Elisabetta, Queen of England, and Maria Stuarda, Queen of Scotland. The audience held their breaths while emotion ran high and the two queens stared down each other. There was drama, tension, and some superb singing.

Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska has a killer coloratura that is virtuosic to say the least. She is one mean Elisabetta, but vulnerable as hell in Act 3, when she mulls over Maria's death warrant, that you almost felt sorry for her.

Maria, sung by Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia, is an utmost gentle creature, except when she calls Elisabetta an "obscene whore" and other toxic things in Act 2, where most of the action happens. Farnocchia gave a heartfelt performance with her well-endowed vocal goods - rich, dark, and at times deadly.

American tenor Eric Cutler, who is making his COC debut as Roberto, has a bell-like voice that rings beautifully and romantically in the hall. While there's not much you can do in a weak role that neither elicits hate nor love, there was a certain urgency in Cutler's delivery of laments and pleas. He didn't appear to know what to do with a sword though (maybe that's part of his characterization for Roberto, in which case, fitting) and his boat-like white shoes were a constant eyesore.

Thanks to baritone Weston Hurt (Lord Guglielmo Cecil), bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi (Giorgio Talbot), and COC's own Ensemble Studio soprano Ileana Montalbetti (Anna Kennedy) in their supporting roles, the stagnant moments in this opera were worth paying attention to.

The COC orchestra, led by Australian conductor Antony Walker, stayed faithful to the score. But perhaps they shouldn't have.

Maria Stuarda continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on May 22, 26, 28, and 30.

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