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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008 | The week before opening night of San Diego Opera’s presentation of “Mary, Queen of Scots,” a press release went out. Unfortunately, soprano Angela Gilbert had fallen ill and had withdrawn from the title role for the opening night performance. I’m pretty sure everyone in attendance on opening night was curious to see how her replacement would fare. Her substitute, Albanian soprano, Ermonela Jaho, I can proudly report, was simply stunning.

But let’s back up a bit. Donizetti’s tragic opera, “Maria Stuarda” or, “Mary, Queen of Scots,” was based on a Friedrich von Schiller play about the imprisoned Mary and her infamous contention with England’s Elizabeth I.

It’s not historical fiction; history serves merely as a backdrop to Donizetti’s dark, complex opera. The queens never did meet in real-life, but the opera famously culminates in their impassioned confrontation. Obviously this opera features two, strong female principle roles — Kate Aldrich as Elizabeth and Jaho as Mary — I wondered if one diva might overshadow the other. Soprano Aldrich’s Elizabeth radiates royal domination and power onstage. Her rich, lovely voice has dimension and adds to Elizabeth’s personality; she never makes the difficult singing sound like a technical vocal exercise. She’s a witty actress, for example displaying Elizabeth’s affectation by gripping her riding crop like it’s a jeweled scepter or a judge’s gavel. She gives Elizabeth a mean sulk when she deals with Leicester.

In her replacement role as Mary, Jaho shines. Her high, silvery tone easily dips dramatically lower when appropriate. She flawlessly negotiates the indignation and moodiness of Mary while she controls her voice exquisitely. Jaho skillfully executes (pun intended) her challenging musical role and charmed the audience on Saturday night. Both Aldrich and Jaho command the stage in their respective scenes and when their two queens finally meet, the tension is combustible. Somehow, Aldrich and Jaho manage to complement rather than eclipse each other on stage.

The narrative of “Mary” contains political intrigue and religious conflict, but there’s also a love triangle that fleshes out the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth loves the Earl of Leicester (Armenian tenor Yegishe Manucharyan) but Mary holds his heart; this ignites Elizabeth’s jealousy and leads to Mary’s demise. Manucharyan’s clarity and dexterity beautifully enhances his demanding and beautiful role. His duet with Elizabeth in Act I is a standout.

Ever-present at Elizabeth’s right-hand, shifty Lord Cecil works hard to convince Elizabeth that Mary inspires treason and should be executed. British bass-baritone Andrew Greenan sings with aplomb and nicely conveys Cecil’s cunning ways. Bass Reinhard Hagen fully embodies the compassionate, sympathetic Talbot. His rich, supple voice indulges the senses. Greenan and Hagen were seen in San Diego Opera’s passionate “Tannhäuser” last month.

Also notable is mezzo-soprano Susana Poretsky as Mary’s companion, who creates a lovely character in a smaller role.

Sets and scenery — from the New York City Opera and designed by Ming Cho Lee — are dark and oppressive, creating the perfect Tudor setting. Elizabethan costumes were designed by Ingeborg Bernerth and are from The Dallas Opera. They are gorgeous: especially Elizabeth’s gowns and Mary’s final ensemble.

I always like to mention the San Diego Opera chorus when they stand-out, which is most of the time. The chorus’ crowd moans with sad anticipation at Mary’s execution site and the air crackles with the tension of apprehension of what’s to come. This is simply outstanding work from an exceptional chorus.

San Diego Opera’s principle guest conductor Edoardo Müller exhibits consideration for the singers, he deftly conducts the music during the difficult arias — he gives the singers a chance to breathe but never goes to a sluggish pace.

South African soprano Angela Gilbert returns to her role for the final performances of “Mary, Queen of Scots” on Friday and Sunday. Like the rest of the audience, I was dismayed to have missed her but delighted to discover something new — Ermonela Jaho’s Mary.

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