in: Reviews

May 8, 2011

Maria Padilla, Strange Choice

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Opera Boston is currently presenting a production of Gaetano Donzetti’s Maria Padilla. It is a troubled work, riddled with beautiful music and a single damning flaw — a completely unexpected happy ending. Indeed, apart from the ending, the plot makes for an excellent operatic subject. In 1841, two months before the opera’s premiere at La Scala and also before he knew that the ending would be changed, Donizetti himself described “the subject” of Maria Padilla in enthusiastic terms:

The libretto, as it has been put together, is most beautiful. A girl is seduced by a king, who swears to marry her; but she has to live for a long time as his mistress, and pass as such in the sight of all, while she alone knows that she is his lawful wife. Through grief, her father goes mad. She tears the crown from the head of Blanche of France, in the very moment when Pedro is betraying her, and cries: “This crown is mine” …and then she kills herself…See what situations it offers!”

In this form, the subject would be another iteration of Donizetti’s interest in Gothic narratives, following in the tradition of the famous Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), Ugo, Conte di Parigi (1832), and works of graphic violence including Gabriella di Vergy (1826) and Maria de Rudenz (1838), all of which end with the prima’s suicide. Further, within the broader context of nineteenth-century Italian opera, this plot can easily be located within a trend that leads to the honor tragedies of later works of the century, especially Verdi’s Rigoletto, the “Pag and Cag” shockers of verismo, and of course, Tosca.

Strangely enough, however, by December of 1841, less than two months after Donizetti described the plot, it was altered so that Maria Padilla would ascend to the throne and die of happiness…literally. As Donizetti put it two days before the premiere: “Yes, sir! Padilla will die from an accession of blood, on the spot; she will not sing, no sir…! And if it goes badly, at least I shall be the first to have tried it.” What caused Donizetti to make this change? The censors? A preemptive revision to save him from the censors? If anything, scholarly debate has proven that the answer just isn’t clear. What is clear is that the text and drama of the work are structured so that a death seems inevitable. See, for instance, the line given to Maria’s sister Inez — even after Maria has seized the crown in the final scene:

Chiama la figlia in lagrime               In tears the sorrowing father

Dolente genitor…                               Calls for his daughter…

Rimorda a chi del misero                Reminding her how she has

Si funestò la vita.                                Ruined his life.

E forse qui riserbane                         Perhaps fate has yet

Il fato a nuovo orror.                        More horror in store.

Can a premonition of “More horror,” in a Grand Finale, go without meaning? No. This opera simply demands a body. And yet, to make matters worse, in 1842 Donizetti revised the opera “because it was no longer tragic.” It was not, however, a thorough revision; he merely stuck a cabaletta onto the end that allowed Maria to live. The result is an opera whose entire dramatic impetus is a setup for a tragedy that never occurs — a surprise happy ending. This version is the one presented by Opera Boston.

However, if the opera is troubled by its dramatic weaknesses, the vocal parts are phenomenal, pure Donizetti. Indeed, in many ways, the opera is a “star vehicle” for the title role, played in Boston by Barbara Quintiliani. This impossibly difficult part is marked by extensive demands in power and coloratura from its first-act cavatina, through the parade of duets that follows, to the conflagration in the Grand Finale. Unfortunately, Quintiliani, who has already earned great acclaim for the part in her performance at the Wexford festival in 2009, had a rather difficult evening on Friday. She is rumored to be battling an illness. It took the entire first act for her top to warm up and while she maintained excellent intonation, at times her voice lacked in power and clarity. However, there were also flashes of brilliance. For example, during the third act duet with Maria’s father Ruiz (played by Welsh tenor Adriano Graziani) Quintiliani rendered the line with a remarkably nuanced warmth and intensity.

The role of the father is also quite interesting. A rare authority figure for tenor, Donizetti supplied the part with several great moments including a vendetta cabaletta and a mad scene. Graziani realized these numbers with a vibrant power and passion. He pulled back slightly in his duet with the king, expressing an appropriate weakness, but he later commanded the stage with an insane charisma for the third act mad scene.

As the King, baritone DongWon Kim sang in robust voice with a suitable authoritarian presence. In her role as Ines, Maria’s sister, Laura Vlasak Nolen brought a luscious, rich and effortless mezzo performance that unfortunately tended to emphasize the difficulties faced by Quintiliani. Tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan gave a convincing performance as Don Luigi (Ines’s husband), while bass Young Bok Kim portrayed the mendacity of Don Ramiro with noteworthy slime. Special note goes to the performance of the chorus of courtiers, for which stage director Julia Pevzner deserves special recognition. Their numbers were sung clearly and beautifully, but their acting was marvelous. Their bitter schadenfreude at Maria’s situation in the second act, for example, provided a subtle touch that was emotionally striking and helping to clarify Maria’s isolation as a kept woman in the castle.

When he wrote the opera, Donizetti had spent three years in France, and the influence of the French operatic ideal of local color is palpable, particularly in the opera’s depictions of the Spanish court. Conductor Gil Rose paid great attention to Donizetti’s orchestration and reaped just rewards. In the opening chorus of the second act, Rose articulated the court scene’s delicate balance of brassy authority and decadent troubadour rhythms with an excellent musicality. Ultimately, however, one also wonders if there might have been more he could have done to accommodate Quintiliani’s difficulties. The costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan were excellent, particularly the uniforms of the courtiers. The rather simple stage design by Alexander Lisiyandsky, (a spiral frame leading down from a giant crown that hung over the entire cast’s head) was used effectively and efficiently by Pevzner.

Despite this wonderful cast, one wonders if there is any way to rescue Maria Padilla from her happy ending. During the Wexford festival production of Maria Padilla in 2009, the director Marco Gandini attempted to solve the tragic requirements of the plot by having Blanche die at the sight of Maria in the grand finale. This solution is downright ludicrous, centering the death of an already voiceless character. Opera Boston’s production is only slightly less silly, having Blanche faint and lie unconscious on the stage for a good while as Maria steals her crown — a scene that elicited giggles from the audience on Friday. It seems that the beautiful music just isn’t enough to redeem the faults of the plot. One must recognize that because the score is lost for Donizetti’s original conception of the drama, there is simply no way to achieve a completely successful production. Ultimately, why Opera Boston chose it over one of Donizetti’s other works is beyond me.

In closing, it is interesting to observe that this weekend Opera America is having its annual conference in Boston, hosted by both Opera Boston and the Boston Lyric Opera. While it is understandable that both companies want to earn a reputation for innovation with their colleagues around the country, the productions that are occurring this weekend are, at best, qualified successes. With the reputation of Boston at stake, I would have thought that one of the companies would put on a more conventional production to assure some measure of success. Instead, the conference goers will perceive the Hub’s operatic scene as one marked by an inconsistency and an ambition that transcends its means. But then again, what could be more appropriate?

Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.

8 Comments

  1. I for one, think it’s great that they chose a lesser performed work. It gives the audience a chance to see a production they may only have the opprotunity to see once in their lives. Also, I think it fits in with Opera Boston’s mission: to promote new and/or rarely performed works.

    Comment by Amy — May 8, 2011 at 9:58 pm

  2. …and BLO’s production of Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a stunning success, tip to toe: idiomatic, lovely, lively playing in the pit, a fabulous cast onstage, an entertaining & brilliant production design & direction, and hand-in-glove leadership from David Angus. Hard to imagine that “inconsistency and..ambition that transcends its means” to which Dr. Morgan refers. I haven’t yet seen/heard “Maria Padilla”, but a voice & musical personality like Barbara Quintiliani’s comes along once or twice a generation; and Opera Boston has a very consistent track record of presenting first-rate productions of underexposed works. I think Boston opera lovers can be very proud of how our producing organizations are illuminating the Hub’s operatic landscape for visiting conference attendees.
    Respectfully,
    Steven Lipsitt
    (Music Director, Boston Classical Orchestra)

    Comment by Steven Lipsitt — May 8, 2011 at 11:10 pm

  3. I can only echo the previous comments and express my perplexity at this review. I am really grateful that Opera Boston provided this opportunity to me and others to see an opera with good and substantial music that is so rarely performed. I am sure that this is also the sentiment shared by many participants in Opera Americana. These are people familiar with opera. Would they really have preferred to see another Lucia di Lammermoor, for example, that was also staged at the Met this year and performed throughout the country by the Teatro Lirico D’Europa?
    This production also offered the opportunity to see some outstanding singer, first of all, Barbara Quintiliani. How wonderful to have her here.
    As for the inconsistency in the plot, the reviewer is right. But then, if plot is your concern, you can’t enjoy half of the famous Italian operas (think of Il Trovatore or Rigoletto). It’s all about the music and the emotions.

    Comment by Heiko — May 9, 2011 at 1:03 am

  4. … “She is rumored to be battling an illness.”
    It’s not really a “rumor”. Quintiliani is open about it. In fact, Opera Boston themselves have a fascinating interview with the singer centering on this issue of illness on their website.
    http://www.operaboston.org/pdfs/operas/padillainterview.pdf

    Comment by Heiko — May 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

  5. See last week’s Globe interview that begins with “Q. We last spoke in 2006, before another Opera Boston production. Were you already diagnosed with MS?”

    http://www.boston.com/yourtown/boston/downtown/articles/2011/05/07/soprano_barbara_quintiliani_is_no_prima_donna/

    My quarrel with Padilla would be with the production. The set might as well have been an empty stage, so little atmosphere did it provide. You know the director is desperate when she has a character step on a chair to mount a table to demonstrate the depth of his feelings. The opening dream sequence, the staging of the wedding in a corner of the set as the curtain rose on Act II, characters wandering between candles set on the ground…all distractions.

    It should be noted that the supertitles, rather more colloquial than is customary, provoked laughter at several points. That could easily have been avoided by a sharp editorial review.

    Comment by Bill McLaughlin — May 9, 2011 at 10:34 am

  6. I hadn’t known Quintiliani had MS at the time I saw the opera; after I read the Globe interview I felt more sympthetic toward her obvious need to sit on a chair whenever possible, even when it did not fit the situation – and she showed in the last scene that she could still be powerful. Still, I agree she had an off night, as was shown by the audience, which applauded Laura Vlasek Nolen much more enthusiastically.

    According to the program notes, Donizetti oversaw productions for three different sopranos with very different talents, adding music each time to suit the new performer but leaving all the old music in – hence the difficulty of the score, but also the difficulty of the ending, since to change it now would require cutting the last cabaletta.

    On the programming question – I gather that the Wexford performance was a big success, so can’t really fault OB for choosing to do it. I’m glad I saw it.

    Comment by John C. Berg — May 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm

  7. I find it tragic that we have long forgotten what world-class opera singing really is. I was at the Friday night performance. While Ms. Quintiliani’s first high B of the evening, was less than “recording industry” perfect, she was the only singer on stage that had true artistry. What Mr. Morgan called a lack of power and clarity was the elusive pianissimo and ability to communicate with an exceptional palate of colors. While Ms. Nolen’s voice has the ability to be beautiful, it unfortunately is pushed, metallic, unfocused and out of tune. The same can be said of Mr. Kim’s Don Pedro. Through most of the evening I had to tune out their singing because it was screaming. The entire meaning of Bel Canto is beautiful singing, not belting screaming. Additionally, it was obvious that Ms. Nolen had not learned the Act II duet and that the aid from the pit was non-existent. From my seat in the house, I witnessed Maestro Rose dropping his baton, missing beats and losing his place in the score. Kudos to Ms. Quintiliani for negotiating an extremely difficult role without the support required. Also, the concert master deserves great credit for holding the orchestra together despite the issues from the podium.

    Comment by Robert Tennant — May 9, 2011 at 6:33 pm

  8. I think it is wonderful that we have the chance to see less performed works. I agree with an earlier comment that it certainly fits the mission of Opera Boston. I also agree that the story is flawed, especially the ending. Literally dying of happiness is a little over the top for me but that’s how it is. As long as the cast was good and the music was beautiful, this can sometimes make up for the fact that the story itself is less than stellar!

    Comment by John S — May 10, 2011 at 12:37 am

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