Soprano substitute wins the day in Seattle Opera’s “Maria Stuarda”
Joyce El-Khoury [picture below] made her Seattle Opera debut in grand style, replacing an ill Serena Farnocchia with just a couple of days’ notice, and sang her heart out in the title role of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” (“Mary Stuart”) on opening night (February 27) at McCaw Hall. The Canadian-Lebanese soprano was already scheduled to perform the same role at the matinee on the next day, and if she rested her voice, she was a lock to deliver another lights-out performance, a feat that Seattle Opera patrons could remember for a long, long time.
Joyce El-Khoury makes her Seattle Opera debut as the Queen of Scots in Mary Stuart. Photo: Philip Newton.
But though El-Khoury made the biggest splash of the evening, she was surrounded by an exceptional cast of principals who collaborated expertly with conductor Carlo Montanaro and director Kevin Newbury (in his SO debut) to put “Maria Stuarda” over the top. The production, by the way, was the first-ever for Seattle Opera, and the company found just the right touches for this bel canto masterpiece, which was based on a Friedrich Schiller play inspired by Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth had imprisoned Mary and had her beheaded because of treason and fear of a Catholic uprising against the Protestants.
In the opera’s most famous scene, Elizabeth and Mary meet (which did not happen in reality), and that meeting as portrayed by soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams as Queen Elizabeth and El-Khoury as Mary Stuart sent sparks flying all over the stage. The accusatory words “vil bastarda” hurled by Mary at Elizabeth caused some in the audience to gasp.
Embodying the passionate yet complex character of Mary, El-Khoury revealed Mary’s tortured soul, highlighted by the confession aria “Quando di luce rosea” and her prayer for forgiveness “Dhe! Tu di un’ umile preghiera.” El-Khoury followed with a stellar “D’un cor che muore” in which Mary asked that Elizabeth be forgiven and topped that with a wildly thrilling high D on the way to her execution while the chorus and orchestra were going full blast.
Mary Elizabeth Williams deftly conveyed Elizabeth’s conflicted emotions, applying a soft and alluring voice when trying to seduce Leicester (sung by John Tessier) and switching to a flinty edge when going after Mary. As Leicester, Tessier sang ardently, holding his own against the two fiery divas. Weston Hurt created a wonderfully empathetic Talbot, whose pleas for mercy went by the wayside. Michael Todd Simpson conveyed an unrelentingly upright Cecil whose call to execute Mary firmed up Elizabeth’s resolve to finally sign her death sentence. Renée Rapier’s Hannah was a compassionate and loyal lady-in-waiting.
The Seattle Opera Chorus, rehearsed to a T by John Keene, sang with genuine fervor and stamped a seal on the big choral numbers near the end of the Act II just before Mary met her doom. The orchestra, guided by Montanaro, supported the singers with terrific sensitivity, and the entire music effort seemed to fit like a glove.
The production used scenery and costumes that were built by Minnesota Opera. While the costumes were traditional, the scenery refreshingly suggested the old and the new. For example, an ornate coffered ceiling evoked traditional palaces but the large columns – outlined with a cross – that descended from the ceiling had a modern flair. For Elizabeth’s scenes, they were bathed in red and for Mary, they were drenched in blue. During the Act II, a huge wall descended from the ceiling, revealing a painting of a woman (Mary) clad in red and ascending heavenward above the outstretched arms of the people. The bare stage floor allowed a large expanse for the chorus to move. Whenever Elizabeth issued a proclamation to her subjects, she climbed a portable and elegant set of stairs. Mary’s set of stairs was just the metal framework, which aptly reflected her imprisoned situation.
Newbury’s directions were spot on, including the two girls who pantomimed blissful times in the past when Mary and Elizabeth got along as cousins. Never mind that such times were totally fictitious. Hey, this is opera after all!