Ecco la regina: Soprano Jodi Burns, interpreter of the title rôle in Piedmont Opera’s October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
[Photograph © by Jodi Burns]
From biblical heroines to Ancient Egypt’s God’s Wives of Amun, Boudicca to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, history has been shaped by powerful women. As mothers, they have nurtured all of mankind, but the notion of woman’s rôles in humanity’s collective story being confined to serving as mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of influential men is as risible as it is insulting. Since its beginnings in Sixteenth-Century Italy, opera has also been populated with remarkable women whose stories have mirrored and in some instances transcended gender politics. Monteverdi‘s Penelope, Poppea, and Ottavia, Händel’s Alcina, Cleopatra, and Rodelinda, and Mozart’s Elettra, Donna Elvira, and Fiordiligi advanced woman’s operatic presence from its start with the victimized Dafne and Euridice to the take-no-prisoners bel canto protagonists of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.
So momentous are the depictions of a pair of history-making women in Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda that the singers portraying them in rehearsals for the opera’s inaugural production became so immersed in the drama that their rendering of the fateful meeting of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor in Act Two—an encounter that originated in Friedrich von Schiller’s 1800 play Maria Stuart, upon which the seventeen-year-old Giuseppe Barbari’s libretto for Maria Stuarda was based, rather than in history—resulted in a physical altercation. The scandal fomented by this incident and objection to Donizetti’s portrayals of the Scottish and English queens by the King of Naples, whose consort had ancestral ties to the Stuart dynasty, subjected Maria Stuarda to censorial meddling. It was therefore the story of a hastily-substituted character borrowed from Dante, not that of Mary Stuart, that was told in the unsuccessful Neapolitan première of the piece on 18 October 1834, for which occasion the opera was rechristened as Buondelmonte. It was not until the opera reached the stage of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala fourteen months later that the maligned Queen of Scots regained her crown.
Born at Linlithgow Palace on 8 December 1542, Mary Stuart was the literal and figurative nexus of empires. The death of her father, James V, when she was only five days old elevated her to the Scottish throne and subjected Scotland to the regency of her mother, Marie de Guise, a scion of a powerful French aristocratic family who, after being widowed at the age of twenty-one, received a proposal of marriage from Henry VIII. Betrothed at the age of five and married before her sixteenth birthday, Mary became queen consort of France in 1559, supplanting her mother-in-law, the domineering Catherine de’ Medici. In the twenty-eight years between her ascension to the French throne and her execution at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire on 8 February 1587, Mary was subjected to intrigue and imprisonment, grave affronts to the honor of a woman of her station. Vilified by the Protestant English but revered on the Continent as a paragon of Catholic resistance to heretical barbarism, Mary remains a divisive figure. In other words, she is a near-perfect operatic subject, a condition treated by Donizetti with generous doses of exhilaratingly affecting music.
The singer who approaches a rôle in which Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Mariella Devia excelled without a sense of awe is unlikely to prove worthy of the legacy of her esteemed predecessors. Her poised but playful Adina in Piedmont Opera’s March 2019 production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore [reviewed here] established soprano Jodi Burns as an insightful interpreter of Donizetti’s music whose singing exudes engaging imagination and commendable cognizance of tradition. Returning to Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center to portray the doomed Queen of Scots in Piedmont Opera’s staging of Maria Stuarda, this gifted singer adds to her repertoire a portrait of a proud woman whose vitality increases her vulnerability. More than four hundred years separate today’s listeners from the life of the historical Mary Stuart, but Burns is confident that Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda will be stirringly familiar to Piedmont Opera’s audience.
Musically and dramatically, Adina and Maria are very different ladies, but they are both intelligent, intuitive women who wield authority in male-dominated societies—and they of course share the bounties of Donizetti’s theatrical savvy. A shrewd artist whose approach to rôles is guided by study of the characters’ musical and historical contexts, Burns exhibits refreshing candor when describing her transition from L’elisir d’amore to Maria Stuarda. ‘Many [singers] portray Adina as a flippant, capricious little thing, but that’s never seemed right to me. She’s a land-owning businesswoman, for God’s sake!’ Burns shared. ‘She’s quite smart and conscientious. And a noblewoman. So I can see some similarities [with Maria].’
Further contemplating the similarities between Adina and Maria, Burns added, ‘They also share a certain joie de vivre.’ Burns quickly conceded that Adina’s and Maria’s life experiences yield very different characters, however. ‘Mary’s life has a great deal of heaviness upon it,’ she said. ‘When we meet her in this opera, she has been imprisoned for about eighteen years. But she did enjoy the idyllic upbringing of a queen. She enjoys nature and beauty and laughter but has also ruled and seen a tumult of heart-shattering losses.’ This heaviness permeates Donizetti’s score, Burns asserted. ‘Mary feels a great deal weightier than Adina, but I’m quite sure that, if they met at a party, they’d have a great time together!’
Nevertheless, acquaintance with Mary’s Donizettian incarnation has not distorted Burns’s perception of the woman who emerges from the pages of history. ‘I don’t think Donizetti’s view changes my interpretation of who the real historical Mary was,’ the soprano confided, ‘but he certainly has given me the opportunity to study her in depth.’ Understanding of attitudes towards Mary in Schiller’s and Donizetti’s cultural milieux is critical, Burns believes. ‘Donizetti depicts quite a sympathetic view of Mary. This is likely due to the political leanings of the Roman Catholic Church and the fact that Schiller’s play may have been the only historical interpretation available to him,’ she offered.
Burns perceives Donizetti’s empathy for Mary in the rôle’s musical evolution. ‘In her first entrance, she bursts onto the stage with youthful energy as the vibrant and beautiful Mary, singing her lilting aria with a wistful but burdened spirit. [Donizetti] allows her here to be a young beautiful woman rather than a rueful, betrayed, dark-eyed queen, winding down her days in the dreary, cool rooms of house arrest.’ Gradually, as Maria becomes ever more mired in political maneuvering, Donizetti’s musical portraiture takes on darker hues. ‘We see some fire from her in the cabaletta, when she hears hunters announce that “La Regina,” the queen, is near,’ Burns observed, ‘but this is no more fire than any passionate queen would exhibit upon finding that her rival has planned a surprise visit.’
Like many opera lovers, Burns identifies the pivotal scene in which England’s Virgin Queen visits her confined counterpart at Fotheringhay as the point of no return in Mary’s journey from misfortune to tragedy. ‘When she is coerced into meeting with Queen Elizabeth I in the famous confrontation scene, it is Elizabeth’s taunting that pushes her to the mad words of rage that seem at first to escape her lips,’ Piedmont Opera’s Maria mused. ‘Here, she is a tortured victim as Elizabeth slings brutal insults and burns her with images of her most desperate moments until she can no longer hold her tongue.’ Had the two queens met in life as in opera, the outcome of their exchange might have been very different, Burns theorizes. ‘As we know, this confrontation never happened: had it, the conversation would have been a great deal more complex, with no clear heroes or villains.’
Though an invention adapted from Schiller, the confrontation scene in Maria Stuarda is, in Burns’s estimation, a pinnacle not only of Donizetti’s work but of operatic writing in general. ‘This scene is pure opera magic,’ she said. ‘Deafening silences, mad screams: it’s an incredible moment.’ Asked whether there are other battles of ego that might prove equally suitable for the operatic stage, she paused for a moment before exclaiming, ‘The stage of a political debate would make a great opera! Or a town hall meeting! Interruptions, rise and fall of pitches in voice, hand gestures, commercial breaks...It writes itself!’
The interview between Maria and Elisabetta is not the sole historical inaccuracy to markedly alter the dramatic narrative of Maria Stuarda. Burns intimated that ‘the addition of the fictional love triangle among Elizabeth, Mary, and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, adds fuel to the confrontation scene fire.’ The conflagration, while precipitating Maria’s grisly demise, also enables the beleaguered monarch to defy protocol and express her truest feelings. ‘Life for Mary has always been out of her own control,’ Burns noted. ‘Here, in our story, as she stands tall against Elizabeth, she takes hold of her own fate, perhaps for the first time. In the [Act Two] finale, she sings, “now guide me to death,” for she has finally spoken freely. Her next scene offers her the opportunity for confession and atonement, and she ultimately ascends the stairs to be beheaded with a clear conscience; and, in her mind, on the path to sainthood.’ The opera’s tragedy is made all the more poignant by the fact that Maria owes these glimpses of self-reliance, freedom, and divine reward to Donizetti. ‘Donizetti gives her this path the victory,’ Burns opined. ‘The grace and goodness and peace she could never have in life, she will achieve in death.’
Chauvinism and misogyny are unfortunate but undeniable aspects of opera’s social constitution, regrettably prevalent both on and off stage, and reconciling the sometimes antiquated attitudes towards gender rôles encountered in opera with current sensibilities can be a difficult task for singers of any gender identity. ‘As a Twenty-First-Century woman, it is always challenging to look upon women’s rôles in Western History without a heavy smudge of disbelief weighing upon one’s brow,’ Burns mused, ‘but I have to say, in this opera, the two queens are presented as being self-possessed and also as bearing quite different demeanors and temperaments. They are not entirely one-dimensional female characters, and most of this information about them is to be found in the music.’
This process of developing a character through mastery of the nuances of her music is an integral component of Burns’s artistry. ‘One of the great joys and challenges of bel canto repertoire is just this,’ she declared. ‘Mary’s music is long lines, often with seemingly stream-of-thought storytelling. She is impulsive and emotional, proud and loyal. Elizabeth’s music is often more angular, and her thought processes occur with a different musical and emotional language.’ Still, as a modern woman, Burns is sensitive to the dated viewpoints on femininity in Maria Stuarda. Examining the opera’s depictions of Mary and Elizabeth, she reflected, ‘Is either of them a “woke” representation of a powerful woman? No—largely due to the added love story.’
The failures of the past engender opportunities for today’s artists, not to make amends but to create new, better-informed trends, and Burns sees in the characterizations of the title rôle in Maria Stuarda and other bel canto heroines unique possibilities for reevaluating these ladies without patriarchal prejudices. ‘We do our best to wade through their depths and bring forth the most human representations we can find through the music written on the page,’ the soprano imparted. ‘Bel canto is cool like that. There are a myriad of interpretations one could choose to engage, based on whether the notes rise or fall, the rhythms are jaunty or smooth. A large chord played by the full orchestra could be surprise or anger or a large physical gesture. We just have to hope to use the right paintbrushes at the right times to make these women multi-dimensional.’
From the point of view of a modern singer devising her own interpretations of well-known rôles, Burns feels a particular responsibility to portray Donizetti’s Maria as a woman whom the historical Queen of Scots would recognize. ‘I have to work hard to analyze each choice she makes from what would have been her perspective,’ she said, but a conscientious artist like Burns never neglects the joy of singing music as gratifying as Donizetti’s. ‘This is Italian opera, baby! It’s larger than life, even at its most quiet moments. To discover the rôle of Maria, all of its intricacies, and still make it read all the way to the back row, that’s a big challenge. But I accept it with gratitude and honor and hope to paint her with as many colors as I can.’
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To learn more about Jodi Burns, please visit her official website.
Piedmont Opera’s production of Maria Stuarda opens at the UNCSA Stevens Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at 8:00 PM EDT on Friday, 18 October 2019. Additional performances are at 2:00 PM on Sunday, 20 October, and 7:30 PM on Tuesday, 22 October. To obtain more information or to purchase tickets, please visit Piedmont Opera’s website or phone 336.725.7101.
Jodi Burns will be joined in the Maria Stuarda cast by Yulia Lysenko as Elisabetta, Kirk Dougherty as Leicester, Jonathan Hays as Talbot, Dan Boye as Cecil, and Brennan Martinez as Anna. Steven LaCosse directs, and James Allbritten conducts.
Sincerest thanks to Ms. Burns for taking time from her grueling rehearsal schedule for this interview.