London is lucky to have heard Joyce DiDonato at the height of her powers in two consecutive seasons. The American mezzo has arguably done less well out of the arrangement, however, finding herself at the centre of two disappointing new productions. Last year it was Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, an intractable non-drama which John Fulljames’s staging (sponsored by Harris Tweed) turned into an unconvincing treatise on constructions of Scottish nationalism.
This season it’s Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda — similarly, if even more obliquely, concerned with Anglo–Scottish relations. Based more on Schiller than on actual history, it might have plenty of bel canto padding, but it presents a director with much less of a challenge, revolving as it does around two scenes — the famous and famously invented confrontation between Maria and Elisabetta I, and an extended finale for Maria as she awaits her execution — that ooze drama and pathos. Thankfully, not even Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s half-hearted, half-baked new Royal Opera production could fully defuse those scenes’ power. But that shouldn’t detract from how lazy and lacking in conviction the French pair’s effort felt.
Its main feature was to have the queens in full Tudor garb — an exaggerated, wide-load farthingale in the case of Elisabetta — but transplanted into a modern world of grey-suited men. The opening Act 1 scene 1 plays out, in Christian Fenouillat’s set, against a hazy backdrop of the Palace of Westminster, Elisabetta delivering her opening aria as if addressing a press conference. Instead of the multiple locations called for, the remaining one-and-a-half acts are confined to a grey prison, to predictably dull and nonsensical effect. When Maria appears, instead of soaking up the beautiful outdoors one last time, she is shown a slide show of countryside images. In the final scene, her supporters and hangers-on all flood into the same cramped space, with Maria herself having to be further enclosed, with a drunken executioner, in a tiled room. That the main linking thread is the image of a Venetian blind, raised to the status of poetic motif at the end, gives a pretty good idea of the level of visual inspiration. For the rest, we are left having to join the unjoinable dots in a production that can’t even, it seems, be bothered to develop the few ideas it has.
As Maria, DiDonato, however, rises regally above all this, singing with supreme technical command and style, and bringing heartbreaking nobility and pathos to the drawn-out final scene — her prayer was exquisite, not least in the way that she blended with the excellent chorus. Elisabetta, by contrast, isn’t much of a role, especially as caricatured here, but Carmen Giannattasio attacks her assignment with relish, her powerful voice full of menace, if occasionally getting stuck in the throat. Ismael Jordi, making a house debut, brings a bright, tireless tenor to Roberto, the weedy, vacillating third side of the royal love triangle. Matthew Rose sings nobly and movingly as Giorgio, Maria’s confidante. Bertrand De Billy rattles through some of the score a little impatiently, but knows when to give extra space and relax.
Maria Stuarda can at least fend for itself. Mozart’s early La finta giardiniera needs more of a helping hand than it gets in Frederic Wake-Walker’s new Glyndebourne production. The plot is famously complex, but the one thing the title and the synopsis (before it causes the eyes to glaze over) tell us is that there’s a ‘Pretend Garden-Girl’, a noblewoman in disguise. Here, though, there was no garden — initially, at least — and no pretending, just a lot of preening, stylised prancing and dancing within Antony McDonald’s run-down rococo-palace set. The garden is reserved for the moment, towards the end, when Sandrina and Belfiore — whose reconciliation is what we’re all waiting around for — also lose the plot, tearing down the palace walls and wandering off into the undergrowth. Finally, at that point, Wake-Walker’s staging starts to make a little sense — but too little, too late.
The teenage Mozart’s score is a miracle of fluency and invention, and full of passing delights, but it contains only hints of the profundity of the mature masterpieces — certainly not enough to make it much more than a work of largely academic interest. Robin Ticciati draws playing of mellow vibrancy and virtuosity from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, though, and Glyndebourne’s cast is excellent. Christiane Karg sings Sandrina with beautiful, bell-like clarity and Joélle Harvey is irresistible as the perky Serpetta. The young Hungarian–Romanian baritone Gyula Orendt makes a strong impression as Nardo, and Joel Prieto is a mellifluous Belfiore. But they and, by and large, the other characters become pawns in this production, which largely frustrates any attempt to work out who they are or why, indeed, any of them are there.