Not that long ago the Metropolitan Opera’s default idea for a New Year’s Eve gala was to dust off its production of Johann Strauss’s frothy “Fledermaus,” with guest stars singing a favorite Puccini aria or Cole Porter song during the party scene, and free Champagne for the audience in the lobby after the show.
But on Monday night the Met and its general manager, Peter Gelb, came up with a far more serious way to ring in the new year: a company premiere production of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda,” the challenging bel canto tragedy that recounts the clash between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots) and ends with the anguished Mary heading to the executioner’s block. Yet if you think of a gala as a meaningful celebration, then it was hard to imagine a better New Year’s Eve gift to opera lovers than this musically splendid and intensely dramatic performance of “Maria Stuarda.”
The production stars the great American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title role, a part that has been sung by sopranos and mezzo-sopranos. Ms. DiDonato’s performance will be pointed to as a model of singing in which all components of the art form — technique, sound, color, nuance, diction — come together in service to expression and eloquence.
Directed by David McVicar, this production takes a traditional approach, but with some vivid colors and stark imagery to lend a contemporary touch to the period sets and costumes by John Macfarlane. In the opening scene at the Palace of Whitehall in London, where Elizabeth’s subjects are celebrating what they think will be her acceptance of a marriage proposal from the king of France’s brother, the set evokes a spacious 16th-century hall. But the wood-paneled walls and the matrix of rafters are an eerie blood red, and the revelers are decked out in creamy white dresses and suits that look strangely matched.
In the second scene, in a park outside the prison at Fotheringhay Castle, where Elizabeth has had Mary confined, the trees are like branchless sticks against grim, gray skies. Yet we see the forest through the eyes of Ms. DiDonato’s Mary, who — allowed out to meet Elizabeth — is deeply touched to be back in open spaces amid nature.
Mr. McVicar’s production is hardly a bold take on the opera. But better to have something traditional than a half-baked concept. His staging is more visually striking and imaginative than what he came up with for Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena,” which opened the 2011-12 season, the first installment of the Met’s planned presentation of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy, of which “Maria Stuarda” is the second. (“Roberto Devereux” will be next.)
This production has the right conductor in the pit: Maurizio Benini, who has long brought a sure hand and insight to bel canto works. He draws a supple and glowing performance from the orchestra and the chorus. Mr. Benini understands that in Donizetti what may sound like a standard oompah-pah accompaniment is an integral musical element that lifts a melody, provides harmonic and rhythmic substance, and offers flexible support to the singers.
The cast is excellent. In a notable Met debut, Elza van den Heever, a 33-year-old South African soprano whose career is rising internationally, is a vocally burnished and emotionally tempestuous Elizabeth (Elisabetta). Her sound, with its earthy tinge and quick vibrato, is not conventionally beautiful. But her voice has penetrating depth and character. She turns flights of coloratura passagework into bursts of jealousy and defiance as Elizabeth contends with the threat that Mary, a blood relative, poses to her reign in England.
In her final scene, in which Elizabeth orders Mary’s death, Ms. van den Heever, in cumbersome queenly regalia, almost waddled around her palace room, looking physically shaken by the course she could see no way around. This may have been a bit of overacting. But I admired the rawness and vulnerability of Ms. van den Heever’s performance. She was so committed to this role that she shaved her head, the better to accommodate the queen’s elaborate wigs. And her bright, intense voice sliced through the orchestra whenever the queen’s ire was provoked.
Matthew Polenzani, who is becoming the Met’s go-to tenor in bel canto repertory (he was wonderful as Nemorino in the company’s new production of Donizetti’s “Elisir d’Amore,” which opened the season) brings melting sound and appealing vulnerability to the role of the hapless Robert Dudley (Roberto), the Earl of Leicester.
He is caught between love for the doomed Mary and entangled feelings for the imperious Elizabeth, and early scenes in “Maria Stuarda” suggest a typical bel canto romantic triangle. But his character fades into the background as the story increasingly focuses on Mary’s plight. Still, in early scenes, he must do a lot of fancy, ardent singing, and Mr. Polenzani embraced the challenge, singing with verve, crispness and poignancy.
Matthew Rose brings a robust bass voice and dignified presence to the role of George Talbot (Giorgio), the Earl of Shrewsbury, who is loyal to Mary. The baritone Joshua Hopkins captures the mix of genuine concern and political calculation that drives William Cecil (Guglielmo), Elizabeth’s secretary of state. And the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak is touching as Jane Kennedy (Anna), Elizabeth’s devoted lady-in-waiting.
With a libretto by Giuseppe Bardari, based on a play by Schiller, the opera gives a very idealized portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was no slouch when it came to political machinations. A 19th-century Italian audience of Donizetti’s day would have rooted for her as a Roman Catholic who stands up to a Protestant queen and becomes a martyr for her religion.
In her first scene, when Mary is given a moment of freedom and sees the fields and the trees, Ms. DiDonato infuses her lines with a tender mix of nobility, uncertainty and sadness. When Mary feels happy for a moment, as in her youth, Ms. DiDonato sings the word “felice” with heartbreaking wistfulness.
Though history tells us that Mary and Elizabeth never met, Donizetti, following Schiller, gives them an intense scene of confrontation. How could he resist presenting his audience with dueling divas?
At first, Mary tries to win Elizabeth’s sympathy. But soon the two queens go at it, rivals not just for the English throne but also for Leicester’s love. And Ms. DiDonato summons white-hot fury when she curses Elizabeth, calling her a “vile bastard,” a phrase that contributed to the initial problems the work faced from Italian censors.
In the last extended scene, Donizetti excelled himself. Facing her execution, Mary confesses her sins to Talbot, then, surrounded by faithful servants, leads a noble, prayerful chorus as good as anything in Verdi. As Mary has a last moment with the guilt-ridden Leicester and bids Jane farewell, the music goes on and on, with what seems like aria after aria. But Donizetti knew what he was doing, and his inspired score carries every shift of emotion and drama.
Ms. DiDonato is simply magnificent, singing with plush richness and aching beauty. At a few moments, from the collective sounds of the subdued chorus and orchestra, a pianissimo high note, almost inaudible, emerged from Ms. DiDonato’s voice, slowly blooming in sound and throbbing richness. I left the house not just moved but renewed, and ready to celebrate the arrival of a new year.
“Maria Stuarda” runs through Jan. 26 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center; (212) 362-6000, metoperafamily.org.