Review: Dueling Sopranos Take Knoxville Opera’s ‘Maria Stuarda’ to Bel Canto Glory

Knoxville Opera, Mary Queen of Scots, Knoxville, April 2017

Knoxville Opera, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’, Knoxville, April 2017

History insists on reminding us that cousins and bitter enemies, Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I, never met in real life. That fact did not prevent German philosopher and playwright, Friedric Schiller, from creating a drama that treated Mary, Queen of Scots as a sympathetic tragic heroine and from presuming a conflict-filled meeting took place during Mary’s long incarceration by a jealous Elizabeth. Nor did that fact deter composer Gaetano Donizetti from recognizing the musical and dramatic possibilities of Schiller’s plot for an opera placing the two women in open opposition, and then mining the theatrical result.

That result was Donizetti’s tragedy, Maria Stuarda, a work that languished for roughly 130 years until the bel canto revival of the 1960s. Opera companies soon discovered its appeal on several levels, not the least of which is that it is a two-diva opera with all the possibilities and fireworks that that implies. Knoxville Opera, as well, discovered those joys last weekend as it produced the first-ever production of Maria Stuarda in Tennessee. The real joy, though, belonged to the overwhelmed audience that witnessed one of the most accomplished and rewarding performances by the company to date.

Of course, the opera requires two sopranos who can bring distinctive qualities to the roles and match each other with vocal and dramatic prowess. KO executive director Brian Salesky found two such talents in Rochelle Bard (Mary, Queen of Scots) and Catherine Daniel (Elizabeth I). Bard is not new to Knoxville Opera, having previously sung the title role in Bellini’s Norma in 2014 and Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore a year later. Daniel, a native of Edmonton, Canada, was making her American opera company debut.

While the role of Mary has been sung by both notable sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, Salesky has taken advantage of the two singers’ strikingly distinctive vocal qualities in order to further define the personalities of the characters. Bard’s performance exemplified the gentle nuance and outward clarity of a heroine in true bel canto style, while reserving startling power and strength for the inevitable conflict. Although Bard’s performances have impressed in the past, this performance revealed a leading lyrical edge to her voice that is both gorgeously crystalline and with a gorgeous depth. In her confrontation scene with Elizabeth, Bard’s dramatic power emerged in the conclusion of Act I as she hurls a “vil bastarda” at Elizabeth as if it were a dagger.

With a distinctive, contrasting voice to Bard’s, Daniel was simply stunning as Elizabeth. Her mezzo has an incredible range—a high-end that is incisive and clear, but with a powerful and rich low register that made possible her impressive portrayal of Elizabeth as an aging, jealous woman, lonely, yet conscious of her power and position. As if Daniel’s impressive range were not enough, her ability to quickly jump from high to low—and notably with strength and clarity—allowed her to bring layer upon layer of dramatic depth to her character. This is certainly a quality that will not go unnoticed by those that hear her in the future.

Schiller and Donizetti also took liberties with history in the role of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Presented as an unfortunate victim torn between the affections of Mary and Elizabeth, Donizetti’s Dudley assumes the bel canto tenor role in the historically embellished love triangle. Taking the role in this production was David Guzmán, making his Knoxville Opera debut. Guzmán made an attractive Dudley, although his otherwise crisp and romantic lyrical voice moved to the sharp side of intonation when pressed for power.

What would Knoxville Opera do without baritone Scott Bearden? Despite his countless roles with Knoxville Opera—among them Scarpia in Tosca, Iago in Otello, and Tonio in Pagliacci—Bearden continues to surprise audiences with wonderful dramatic portrayals balanced with impressive vocal clarity and power. In the role of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s advisor, Bearden was able to command focus even while positioned upstage and projecting over the chorus and orchestra.

Making his debut with Knoxville Opera was the rich-voiced bass Darren K. Stokes in the role of George Talbot. Linda Barnett, an alumnus of the University of Tennessee School of Music and a familiar voice to Knoxville opera audiences, sang a sympathetic Anna Kennedy, Mary’s lady-in-waiting.

Stage director Brian Deedrick kept the action low-key to focus attention where it belongs, on the characters of Mary and Elizabeth. He moved the excellent Knoxville Opera Chorus about cautiously, maintaining a sedate avoidance of quick or sudden movements, allowing the two women considerable room for their own dramatic energy. Likewise, lighting designer John Horner kept the atmospheric mood muted in warm colors and carefully controlled focus for the lead singers, including a delicious stage picture for the sextet, “E sempre la stessa,” at the end of Act I.

Although orchestra pit space and financial limitations often influence orchestra size, Salesky opted for what appeared to be a full complement from the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra for this production—and the difference was noticeable in achieving the compelling Donizetti orchestral flavor. Perhaps the Knoxville Opera audience can hope for re-visiting another Donizetti bel canto masterpiece in the near future. Okay, Lucia di Lammermoor—there, I’ve said it.

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Related stories in the Knoxville Mercury–
Mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniel Makes Her American Debut in Knoxville Opera’s ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’”

Knoxville Opera Showcases Donizetti’s Fictionalized Account of ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’