The Metropolitan Opera may have pretty much turned opening night over to the glamorous Anna Netrebko, but New Year's Eve belongs to a very different diva — Joyce DiDonato.
Last year the Kansas-born mezzo-soprano headlined a starry lineup in the baroque pastiche "The Enchanted Island." On Monday night she brought a gala audience to its feet with a luminous performance in the title role of Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda."
Never before performed at the Met, this second opera in the composer's so-called "Three Queens" trilogy portrays the lethal conflict between Mary, deposed queen of Scotland, and Queen Elizabeth I of England.
From the moment she makes her entrance in the second scene, singing of her joy in strolling outside her prison in Fotheringay Castle, DiDonato rivets attention. She imbues every syllable with a concentrated eloquence that makes her compact voice seem larger than it is. She displays seemingly effortless command of coloratura embellishments throughout a wide vocal range. And she is equally impressive in fiery outbursts and in hushed, long-held phrases — like the ones she spun out as she sang through the chorus in the final scene.
The opera's dramatic heart is a confrontation between the two queens that never took place in history but that figures in the Friedrich Schiller play on which the libretto is based. Mary at first abases herself in hope of winning a pardon; then, as Elizabeth hurls insults, her pride reasserts itself and she seals her doom by denouncing her rival as "figlia impura di Bolena" ("impure daughter of Anne Boleyn") and "vil bastarda" ("vile bastard").
DiDonato was impressive in this scene when she sang the role for the first time last spring in Houston, but her performance Monday night was even better — more confident and more filled with vocal and dramatic shadings. There was a wonderful touch when, after she had spent her fury, she allowed herself a beatific smile, as if to convey: "There! I said it and I'm glad!"
Of course, it takes two to stage a confrontation, and DiDonato's partner at the Met is Elza van den Heever, a South African soprano making her debut. She has a voice that's impressive in many respects, with a large and vibrant upper register. But she tended to fade out in the lower part of her range, where much of Elizabeth's music lies.
More damagingly, she was victimized by a quirk of David McVicar's production that has Elizabeth lurching awkwardly about the stage for much of the evening, as if thrown off balance by John Macfarlane's elaborate period costumes. Perhaps this bizarre gait is intended to contrast with Mary's immaculate poise, but it mainly proves distracting.
The opening scene in Elizabeth's palace is garishly staged, with what look like red rafters hanging down from the ceiling and gratuitous acrobats in devil costumes, but once past this, matters improve. For the scene outside Fotheringay, Macfarlane fills the stage with spindly trees barren of leaves and provides a painted backdrop that evokes a cloudy landscape. The final tableau is also striking: Mary, shorn of her long hair and wearing a simple red dress, climbs a staircase with her back to the audience to meet her executioner and the chopping block.
Though the two queens dominate the opera, there are some other characters, and they are all in extremely good hands. Having the elegant tenor Matthew Polenzani take on the thankless role of the ineffectual Leicester is luxury casting indeed. Bass Matthew Rose is warmly sympathetic as Mary's confessor, Talbot; baritone Joshua Hopkins sings with robust tone as her nemesis, Cecil; and mezzo Maria Zifchak lends her customary strong support as Mary's attendant, Anna.
Maurizio Benini conducts a lithe and lively performance of the score, even if he can't quite disguise the fact that the second half of the opera is decidedly anti-climactic.
There are seven more performances, including a matinee on Saturday, Jan. 19, that will be broadcast live in HD to movie theaters around the world.