Donizetti's Maria Padilla is a canvas for sumptuous costumes, regal staging and bel canto voices. The royal court, the wedding finery and the homes of Spanish nobility add up to a visual feast. Even without all this, the opera stands up musically. While some operas benefit (or are saved) by a grand production, Maria Padilla passes the “in the car” test. I sometimes ask myself if I would listen to a particular opera in the car, or if its charm stays on the stage at the end of the evening. This music is gorgeous and illustrative, evoking the story and images. One could listen to it over and over again.

Adriano Graziani as Don Ruis, © Clive Grainger
Adriano Graziani as Don Ruis,
© Clive Grainger

The opera opens with a dream. Maria Padilla has a vision of a cherub leading her to an altar, where a crown is placed on her head. In short order the vision becomes reality when she discovers the man who claims to love her is Don Pedro, the Prince of Castile, in disguise. Unconvinced of his motives, Maria only agrees to go with the Prince when he promises to marry her. He does, but explains that he will be required to marry for political gain. This union must be kept a secret. After their marriage, the Prince puts off the inevitable arranged marriage to Bianca of Bourbon as long as possible but cannot keep the court at bay forever. While away caring for her father, who has descended into madness, Maria hears the wedding celebration and returns to claim what is legally hers. There are different versions of what happens next. In the version I saw, Don Pedro pronounces Maria as his Queen and leads her to the throne as shadows of battles begin on the fringes. In another version she receives the crown and dies of joy. In yet another, she accepts the crown and then kills herself. The historical Maria Padilla (1334 – 1361) remained a secret wife, bearing the king four children despite his marriage to Blanche of Bourbon.

Maria's father is one of the most engaging characters in the story. He is torn between familial honor and pure love for his daughter. Not knowing about the secret marriage, the Duke thinks Maria has dishonored the family by becoming a courtesan. By the time he is told about the secret marriage, he's gone mad – torn by conflicting forces – and cannot hear the truth. All pretense is gone. He no longer feels impelled to keep up appearances, and becomes the crazy relative with no filter. He is the guest at the wedding who says all the things aloud that everyone knows but has the good sense not to mention. His unravelling shows the story taking a turn for the worse.

In the Opera Boston production, the set is an ascending wall, shaped like an expanded nautilus. The wall starts low on the left, sweeping higher and ending abruptly on the right. Hanging over the highest point of the wall is an enormous crown – suspended like the Sword of Damocles. The wall traces the ascent of Maria to the throne, with the final step a precipice. If she leaps for the crown, there is nothing to hold her up. She has no support from the people and her husband's love can only carry her so far. The music conveys that this is not the way anyone hoped it would go. Maria has the throne, but must keep it a secret. In spite of the riches and power, she cannot live out loud. It is apparent that Don Pedro does truly love Maria, which must be a comfort as well as a curse to both.

Although it took her a bit to hit her stride, Barbara Quintiliani was astonishing in the title role. It is a very big sing and she owned it, breathing life into a not-particularly sympathetic character. She was especially lovely in the duet with Ines, sung gorgeously by Laura Vlasak Nolen. Their father, sung by Adriano Graziani, had the audience wrapped around his finger in no time.

The gentleman behind me said at the beginning “what happened to boy meets girl, the end?” as he read the very complicated synopsis in the program. I'm sure he settled in with the rest of us, listening and watching while the music and cast carried us through the tale. Even just hearing it the one time, with very little knowledge going in, I found the opera to be a gift to the audience that continued to sing for days after the final bows.