The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: This week UW opera to give local premiere of revised version of Donizetti’s bel canto opera “Maria Stuarda”

April 19, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

An epic power play that ignites vocal fireworks is University Opera’s latest premiere and season closer: Gaetano Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda.”

Sung in Italian with projected English surtitles, the work will be given three performances—Friday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, April 25 at 3 p.m. and Tuesday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m.  All shows will take place at the Carol Rennebohm Auditorium in Music Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Tickets to  “Maria Stuarda” (below, in a photo by Brent Nicastro, are from left  Celeste Fraser  as Queen Elizabeth, Emily Birsan as Maria Stuarda and J. Adam Shelton as Leicester) are $20 for the general public, $18 for senior citizens and $10 for UW-Madison students, available in advance through the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office at (608) 265-ARTS, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. and Saturdays, 12:00–5:00 p.m.  Tickets are also available at the Vilas Hall Box Office from Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., and after 5:30 p.m. on University Theatre performance evenings.

Because shows often sell out, advance purchase is recommended.  If unsold tickets remain, they may be purchased at the door beginning one hour before the performance. The Carol Rennebohm Auditorium is located in Music Hall (below), at the foot of Bascom Hill on Park Street.

“Maria Stuarda” is based on the play by famed German writer Friedrich von Schiller, and is one on the rare “bel canto” (literally, “beautiful singing”) operas with a turbulent history.  Banned by the King of Naples shortly before its 1834 debut, numerous efforts to present the work continually fell short until the middle of the 20th century.

A current revival in opera houses around the world has been facilitated by the 1987 discovery of the autograph score and Anders Wiklund’s critical edition.

Donizetti (below), considered one of history’s most prolific opera composers, offers what history could not: a fictional meeting between the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and the Catholic Mary Stewart of Scotland that combines power and jealousy resulting in dynamic confrontation seldom associated with works of this period.

According to a press release, director William Farlow (below), says he is “thrilled” with the opportunity to stage “Maria Stuarda,” the fourth Donizetti opera he has directed for the program since he assumed his current post in 1999.


“Bel canto opera—Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti—has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager because of my exposure to performances by Callas, Sutherland, Caballé, Sills, Scotto and Gencer,” says Farlow.  “It is especially gratifying to be able to present this work at this time of my career.”

Farlow’s cast includes undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, supported by the UW Chamber Orchestra under the direction of James Smith.  The title role will be sung by Emily Birsan (below), while the role of Queen Elizabeth will be shared by Celeste Fraser (April 23 and April 27) and Jennifer Grace Sams (April 25).

In addition to a sizeable ensemble, other roles are performed by J. Adam Shelton (Leicester), John Arnold (Talbot), Justin Niehoff Smith (Cecil) and Megan Gryga (Anna).

Production staff includes costume designers Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park, technical director Greg Silver, lighting designer Steven M. Peterson, set designer Angelina Paoli, vocal coach Bill Lutes and chorus master Susan Goeres.   The English surtitles are by Christine Seitz.

Farlow  — seen below rehearsing Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutti” in 2004 — offered The Well-Tempered Ear the following Q&A about the opera:


Why did you choose this opera to stage?

It showcases most of our outstanding singers.

What, briefly, is the story line?

The time is 1587, and the places are London and Fotheringhay.

Queen Elizabeth I loves the Earl of Leicester, but he loves the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots.  He promises her confidant George Talbot that he will do all in his power to secure Mary’s release and persuades Elizabeth to meet Mary.

On Leicester’s advice Mary humbles herself before Elizabeth and asks for forgiveness.  Elizabeth taunts Mary who in turn insults her Elizabeth sealing her own fate.

Despite Leicester’s pleas, Elizabeth signs Mary’s death warrant and names Leicester as witness at the execution.  Mary confesses to Talbot and prays for peace in England.  Forgiving Elizabeth she goes to her death.

The opera was censored and banned in the 1830s. What made it so politically or socially subversive or dangerous?

Two reasons: The reigning Queen Maria was a direct descendant of Mary Stuart and the language used in the confrontation scene – Mary refers to Elizabeth as a “vile bastard.”

How is the opera politically or socially relevant to today, if it is?

It shows us monarchs in a human and very vulnerable light.

How would you rank it and compare its similarities and differences to other Donizetti operas and other bel canto operas?

I would put it up near the top, next to his other great works – “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “L’elisir d’amore” and “Don Pasquale.”

What would you like the public to know about the cast, sets and costumes, and other aspects of the production? (Below in a photo by Brent Nicastro are Emily Birsan as Maria Stuarda), J.
Adam Shelton as Leicester and Celeste Fraser as Queen Elizabeth.)


The costumes are by longtime collaborator, Sydner Krieger and Hyewon Park as are the sets of Angelina Paoli.

As to the cast, it is comprised of young professionals: Emily Birsan, John Arnold, and J. Adam Shelton will be with the Des Moines Metro Opera this summer, Jennifer Sams will be with Opera for the Young next season, and Celeste Fraser sang with Opera North last summer.

The manuscript was lost from the 1830s until the mid-20th century. What changes or discoveries were made when the manuscript was discovered after all that time?

This critical edition comes form material found in Sweden in the late ’70s, I believe.  The opening chorus is completely different from the one used previously and there are changes in Mary’s two cabalettas and the stretta of the Act I finale.  Also, it is now in two instead of three acts.

It is such a beautiful and thrilling work.  I think the public will be delighted with it.

Here is a taste of the “Maria Stuarda” (performed in English) featuring the famed Dame Janet Baker, who chose the opera as one of three she sang for her farewell tour (more videos of Baker in the role can be found at YouTube):

If you go, let us know what you thought of the singing and the production.

You may persuade others to take in a later performance.

And The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

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