REVIEW: Pacific Opera Victoria’s Maria Stuarda

POV delivers the emotional and spiritual truths of Donizetti's fictional account of the classic showdown between the two historical figures.

Sally Dibblee plays Elizabetta in Pacific Opera Victoria's production of Maria Stuarda.

Sally Dibblee plays Elizabetta in Pacific Opera Victoria's production of Maria Stuarda.

For the final offering of its 2011-2012 season, Pacific Opera Victoria presents an affecting and transcendent production of Gaetano Donizetti’s tragic opera “Maria Stuarda.”

Described as “the ultimate diva opera,” Maria Stuarda frames a classic showdown between two historical figures – Maria Stuarda/Mary, Queen of Scots and Elisabetta/Elizabeth I. The libretto finds Maria Stuarda (Tracy Dahl) imprisoned, with her life in the hands of reigning-monarch Elisabetta. A love triangle is set-up between the two sovereigns through Leicester (Edgar Ernesto Ramirez), who loves Stuarda, but is loved by the Virgin Queen. Though Maria and Elisabetta never actually met, there are emotional and spiritual truths in Donizetti’s fictional account, and POV delivers them by the cartload.

Tracy Dahl pierces the heart as Maria. Maria Stuarda is essentially a Catholic piece and Dahl captures the demanding role of a martyr. From the sweetness and gentleness of a Therese of Lisieux (“O nube!”) to a stoic Joan of Arc, Dahl manages, throughout, to ornament her work with the trills that are so central to bel canto opera. She, quite literally, takes the breath away. Little wonder that Dahl is considered Canada’s premier coluratura soprano.

Sally Dibblee balances the iron-will of England’s famous Virgin Queen, with exquisite vulnerability. For example, as the third act opens, we find Elisabetta in her candle-lit chambers with her long red hair down. Realpolitik blends with heartbreak as Elisabetta vacillates between pity for Maria and severe political expedience. Diblee is ravishing in the role. Yes, Maria Stuarda is a diva-opera, but Edgar Ernesto Ramirez as Leicester is a revelation. Of Mexican-American descent, Ramirez’s velvet tenor voice communicates aching romantic love.

Stage Director Maria Lamont frames Maria Stuarda within a charming conceit: a museum. As the chorus arrives at the beginning of each act, they do so as workers in a museum which houses portraits of each Queen, along with their relics. Imperceptibly, the museum becomes a court, castle or royal chamber as the historic personages of the opera areinvoked. The effect is haunting, making the willingness to suspend disbelief so much easier to do.

Lamont also beautifully observes the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. It states that no unneccessary elements should be included in a production (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”). The opera’s libretto, in Act I, refers to a small portrait of Maria, which remains an incidental piece of business, at best. Lamont, however, develops this simple prop into a window into Elizabethean England, a target for a Queen’s rage, the focus of a lover’s torment and the final image of the production. It is a brilliant bit of stagecraft.

Camellia Koo’s costume and set design delight, as well. The conservative set, formal and linear, disappears to a vanishing point in the unseen distance. Doorways upstage left and right provide chances for supporting cast members to peek and spy, heightening the atmosphere of surveillance prevalent in Elizabeth’s time. In Act II, Maria pushes open hidden windows, letting in shafts of light, underscoring her yearning for a lost childhood in France.  These same Tudor frames transform into a gaol cell by the third Act. Once again, brilliant stagecraft supports transcendent performances.

Maria Stuarda will please both veteran lovers of opera, and those new to the art form. It is neither too long, nor too demanding a piece, and POV have provided plenty of information on their website to help one prepare: the libretto, historical notes, an English translation of the play on which the opera is based, etc. Finally, generous sponsors have made surtitles possible which provide simultaneous English translation of the Italian text, above the stage.


By Brent Schaus