For 36 years, Opera Sacra, under the guidance of the Rev. Jacob Ledwon, has brought a wide variety of operatic works with religious underpinnings to Western New York. They’ve ranged from medieval liturgical dramas like “The Play of Daniel” and “Ordo Virtutum” by Hildegard von Bingen to modern scores by Gian Carlo Menotti (“Amahl and the Night Visitors”) and James MacMillan (“Parthenogenesis”).
This weekend saw the latest installment in the organization’s formidable history, a fully staged rendition of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” with an orchestra under the guidance of Roland Martin, whose own “Calvary” received its world premiere in 2011 under the aegis of Opera Sacra.
The religious tie-in for this bel canto masterpiece lies in the conflict between English Protestant and Catholic interests in the persons of Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. The opera’s libretto is one of those cases where the writer chose not to let the facts get in the way of a good story but, to be frank, the story is second rate while the musical opportunities are considerably better.
At the core of the plot is the interaction between the queens – Elizabeth’s jealousy, Mary’s essential powerlessness, the politics of religion and power – and the Machiavellian manipulations of the two women by Cecil, the Lord High Treasurer. That Donizetti was able to craft such a luscious score, pointing up the emotions of the characters with tension filled swells of sound and menacingly quiet passages freighted with suspense, is a tribute to the composer’s craft and his ability to overcome a potboiler text.
Overall, the singing in Opera Sacra’s production was impressive, Martin’s conducting was assured, the musicians played well and the staging was effective, given the limitations of the venue.
Amy Lynn Grables’ Mary and Colleen Marcello’s Elizabeth worked off of each other well in their shared scenes, communicating the multitude of emotions roiling beneath (and sometimes over) their surfaces. It was a pleasure to hear such vocal beauty and control in service to the music.
The male roles were also noteworthy. Benoit Pitre’s Cecil was sung with malevolent conviction while the Leicester role, the romantic pivot between Elizabeth and Mary, was ably sung by Robert Zimmerman. Valerian Ruminski’s role as Mary’s jailor George Talbot showcased his fine baritone.
From a production standpoint, as Ledwon’s “Director’s Notes” explained, some of the vocal music that Donizetti wrote for the opera was excised because he felt that “Choral music was not Donizetti’s ‘strong suit.’ ”
This was the only thing I missed about this performance but, given the costs associated with this large undertaking, it was a cut that didn’t affect the overall quality of the piece.