First Nighter: Maria Stuarda at the Met, Donna McKechnie at 54 Below

Because it's not especially positive, let's hold off on the most memorable aspect of David McVicar's Maria Stuarda production that opened at the Metropolitan Opera House on New Year's Eve.
(For who-knows-what reason this is the first time the Gaetano Donizetti work has shown up at the venerable venue.)
Instead, let's focus on the rewarding elements of the second opera in the bel canto-insistent composer's look at 16th-century England and Scotland and its prominent figures. Anna Bolena is the first, and this second one is spun off the 1800 German drama in which Friedrich Schiller decided that the at-loggerheads queens and half-sisters met and exchanged extremely harsh words, none of which ever actually happened.
In setting the play to music, Donizetti did some of his most beautiful writing, not just for the title character (Joyce DiDonato in the new offering) and her prevailing adversary Elizabeth I (Elza van den Heever, making her Met bow). Throughout, Donizetti also imagined any number of ensembles involving Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and beloved of both monarchs (Matthew Polenzani), Elizabeth's secretary of state William Cecil (Joshua Hopkins), Mary's mainstay George Talbot (Matthew Rose) and a chorus representing at various times Elizabeth's loyal Protestant subjects and Mary's devoted Catholic followers.
If Donizetti had only conjured the second-act prayer Mary sends up -- with advocates joining her -- when she knows she's within minutes of losing her head to the executioner's axe, any listener would be gratified. The singing required to maximize the score throughout is far more than satisfactory, as conducted by Maurizio Benini.
Soprano van den Heever proves she's where she belongs by easily filling the house with her clear and ringing voice. Hopkins and Rose also project authoritatively. Although it's generally conceded that both leading roles can be filled by either sopranos or mezzo-sopranos, DiDonato's mezzo may not satisfy patrons demanding extraordinary bel-canto expertise. She definitely brings technical skills to bear from start to finish and hardly scants the music. Yet, a certain luster seems lacking.
Now to some impressions left by the Donizetti-Giuseppi Barbari adaptation. In it there's no question that the English queen wants to be rid of Mary. On the other hand, Mary's supposed determination to undermine Elizabeth's reign -- what's known as the Babington Plot -- isn't particularly emphasized. Nor is the clash between them very fiery once they're brought together. The problem is that director McVicar stages the act-one closing sextet with its members facing the audience, as opera-staging tradition demands, rather than one another.
Those cavils aside, however, the truly eye-popping drawback to this Maria Stuarda is McVicar's depiction of Elizabeth I as a consistently lumbering woman. In act one, van den Heever strides about the stage as if wearing army boots under set-and-costume designer John Macfarlane's voluminous gowns.
(Macfarlane's sets aren't extravagant -- primarily red for the first act to underline Elizabeth's colorful behavior when her people think she's about to announce her engagement, black for the somber second act -- with the exception of the startlingly red shift in which Mary ascends to her martyrdom. To elaborate on Elizabeth's known festive nature, choreographer Leah Hausman opens the holiday-like proceedings with a couple of gymnasts and a juggler among the participants in a bigger Elizabethan blow-out.)
The impression van den Heever's galumphing inevitably makes is that McVicar has concluded Elizabeth's never marrying must mean she was a lesbian and therefore likely moved about with some kind of stereotypical gait. This is not only ludicrous but insulting to both the audience and her. Not only that, her movements are at odds with the tenor (no pun intended) of the music Donizetti provided for her. Things are different in act two, but not necessarily better. To simulate the effect of aging, van den Heever hobbles about bent over and wielding a cane.
Why? When Mary was finally sent to her death, Elizabeth was only 54 and, though records are not detailed, she doesn't seem to have endured severely diminished physical powers.
Publicity for the production included the skinny that van den Heever shaved her head to play the queen. You'd think that would be enough sacrificing for her art a game soprano should can be allowed to do. Guess McVicar doesn't agree. Come April he's bringing the Met his 2005 Glyndebourne treatment of Handel's Giulio Cesare, and it'll be interesting to see what he makes of the titular Roman hero and inamorata Cleopatra.


The high point of Donna McKechnie's Same Place -- A Different Time at 54 Below is -- due to its profoundly emotional underpinning -- the reprise from A Chorus Line. It's not, however, The Music and the Mirror, her 11 o'clock number in the Tony-winning musical for which she also won a Tony.
Instead she reclaims the "At the Ballet" section that lyricist Ed Kleban and composer Marvin Hamlisch based on what she contributed when Michael Bennett was taping dancers' recollections in hopes of developing a musical around what he heard.
As done here and now, McKechnie's information on the troubled relationship with her father (sung in the original production by Kay Cole, who had the required high note) is a significant footnote to the tuner that any theater-goer would want to hear. The pathos, sweetness and, above all, the movements she imparts to it almost four decades later -- when, not incidentally, she's that much more of an accomplished actor and singer than she was then -- is worth the cover and minimum and then some.
The title of her turn -- check that: she's and dancer, a dancer dances, and so she executes several silky turns -- is firstly a reference to Studio 54, the place to see and be seen upstairs here in the 1970s. More than that, it's also a reference to her life, career and loves at the time. She even mentions that her first New York City apartment was down the block.
Recalling those years -- and the later arthritis diagnosis she's battled and completely overcome -- she sings songs from the decade and some that aren't, like "I Never Know When to Say When" from the 1958 Goldilocks. Although on opening night, she began uncertainly, it was obvious that by the act's middle, she realized the audience was devoutly with her. From then on assurance flowed from her limbs as if she felt she'd just been guaranteed that music (John McDaniel fronting a five-man band), that mirror and that chance to dance for us.
Is it fair to report that McKechnie is 72? Perhaps when this is what 72 looks like, it's absolutely fair.