The Minnesota Opera's staging of Geatano Donizetti's Maria Padilla is an unexpected pleasure. In what may be the first United States production of the opera (after its debut in Britain less than two years ago), Artistic Director Dale Johnson demonstrates the strength of this 19th century bel canto work. Until about 50 years ago, most opera lovers were familiar with only three of Donizetti's operas: Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale, and L'elisir d'amore. There has been increased interest in staging his remaining operas (nearly 70 of them). Unfortunately, many of these lesser-known works are thin and lack the power and integrity of his three most famous . There are exceptions in Torquato Tasso, Maria Stuarda, Il Campanello, and, as Johnson proves, Maria Padilla.
Though the quality of the singers is outstanding, Brenda Harris shines as Maria. This role is challenging due to the manner in which Donizetti composed the score. Before its premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1841 (the house has recently reopened after a 3 year closure for renovation, staging Europa by Salieri - the first opera performed there in 1778), the soprano cast as Maria became pregnant and had to back out. Donizetti had this first soprano's voice in mind while composing the first part of the opera : florid, light, and spright, able to dance through the ornamentation. Her replacement possessed a voice of deeper clarity and greater drama. The contemporary edition requires an unusual dexterity, a voice that can really be two voices. Harris is one of a handful of sopranos capable of this agility and articulation.
In her Act II duet 'A figlia incauta' with local singer Karin Wolverton, Harris is at ease in Donizetti's idiom. This duet, a popular concert piece in the nineteenth century, is evocative and the singing by Wolverton and Harris is both supple and sure. If the original libretto had been performed, Harris would be singing Maria's suicide. Donizetti changed the ending of the opera (likely due to censor prohibition of an onstage suicide), giving Maria a happier future.
In addition to the unique vocal requirements for Maria, Donizetti penned a rare tenor mad scene. Bruce Ford, as Maria's father Don Ruiz, plays this with astounding restraint and a steady, clear voice. Ford makes it sound easy, rumbling with remarkable articulation.
Ashley Holland's (Don Pedro) stylish baritone mixes well with Harris' soprano. His performance is accomplished. His voice is a fitting compliment to Harris' in the opening wedding scene, with its melange of admiring villagers.
Donizetti's orchestration of Maria Padilla is unusually subtle, serving as a nuanced backdrop to the athleticism of the singers. Milanese conductor Francesco Maria Colombo teases an impressive performance out of the Minnesota Opera orchestra. The timing is solid and the interpretation of the score rich and clear.
Cameron Anderson's set is evocative and leans toward a fabulist dream with empty picture frames and a cage. Don Ruiz swings in the enclosure while Maria's mourns her father's fate. Watching Don Ruiz sleep and suffer while Maria sings heightens the tragedy.
National Endowment for the Arts Chair Dana Gioia introduced the opening night performance with praise for Dale Johnson and the Minnesota Opera and I echo that appraisal. I regarded the choice to stage Maria Padilla skeptically, but am a quick convert. Though the libretto is not the strongest in Donizetti's oeuvre, the composition and the Minnesota Opera's production make this an opera of note.
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