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?