Mary Stuart review - Classic Melbourne

Donizetti’s 1835 opera, Maria Stuarda, is no Wolf Hall. Unlike the Booker-winning blockbuster, it puts the dynastic and doctrinal conflicts between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth 1 safely into the background and introduces a fictional love triangle as a more politically acceptable focus for their conflict.

Maria Stuarda was hobbled by the censors of the day in any case, because its subject matter was regicide – and because of its notorious, invective-laden confrontation between the two queens, which has since proved one of its chief drawcards. Today, it is a core work of the bel canto repertoire and has been a star vehicle for such illustrious singers as Joan Sutherland, Janet Baker and, more recently, Joyce DiDonato.

Sadly, here in Melbourne, it is a long time between airings of this great bel canto work, which, for all its historical revisionism, is a compelling drama with much beautiful and moving writing for bel canto artists. All the more reason to celebrate a company like Melbourne Opera, which, without any government funding, gives Melbourne audiences an opportunity to experience repertoire they otherwise wouldn’t.

Like Victorian Opera, the company also gives us an opportunity to see and hear outstanding Australian singers we otherwise wouldn’t. This production’s Mary Queen of Scots, Elena Xanthoudakis (pictured), is a former Victorian College of the Arts graduate who, following some impressive international singing competition wins, is building her career from London. Like Greta Bradman, she has had the benefit of tutelage with Sir Richard Bonynge, who conducted her recent debut album also. Xanthoudakis has sweetness of tone, secure technique and plenty of coloratura tricks up her sleeve, including a killer trill.

The production’s Elizabeth 1 is Rosamund Illing, who has had a distinguished career in Australia and the UK since the 1980s. She is a forceful vocal presence as the love triangle’s hurt and angry third wheel. Lyric coloratura tenor Henry Choo is impressive in the vocally challenging role of Leicester the love interest.

In secondary roles, mezzo-soprano Caroline Vercoe turns in a characteristically strong, well-acted performance as Mary’s companion Anna and baritone Phillip Calcagno is a pleasing and convincing vocal presence as Talbot, particularly in his later scenes with the condemned Mary. Ensemble work by the cast and chorus made for some of the night’s most satisfying moments.

Another great service Victoria’s opera companies are doing is staging works in Melbourne’s historic theatres. They provide a welcome intimacy, warmth and sense of place that connects Melbournians to the city’s long legacy of opera production. The Athenaeum is a truly charming theatre, though the acoustics and cramped orchestra pit are a challenge for the orchestra, conducted by Richard Divall. They were not always in sync with the singers on opening night.

The opera is performed in English. Many people welcome the opportunity to follow an opera without having to rely on surtitles; others find translation disturbs the flow of music composed for another language, nowhere more so than in bel canto where attention to the beauty of the Italianate line is primary.

It’s counterintuitive to be unsettled that characters in an English court are singing in English, but the cast’s commendably crisp articulation and pointed English diction occasionally brought Gilbert and Sullivan to mind rather than Donizetti, and some over reliance on stock theatrical gestures reinforced the association.

The costumes have been borrowed from the Opera Australia’s production of Maria Stuarda and are of the period. The production design relies on simple structural elements, a wooden screen and an arching ribcage, which are lit and moved about to effectively define the opera’s various locales.

Given that the opera grounds the conflict between the two queens in desire, director Suzanne Chaundy accentuates the contrast between a mature, self-denying but still desiring Elizabeth and a younger, more carefree, perhaps careless Mary, who had a run of scandal-tinted marriages. While both are prey to their own weaknesses, this is a less formidable Mary than Donizetti fans will be used to. In the confrontation scene, for example, she seemed naively not to realise she had signed her own death warrant by denouncing Elizabeth until there were poleaxes in her face.

This possibly undercuts the gravitas of her martyrdom in the opera’s glorious final act, but it’s not every day you get to hear a singer of Xanthoudakis’s calibre singing this magnificent music and it was a highlight of a production well worth hearing.

Review by Max McLean

http://classicmelbourne.com.au/melbournes-maria-stuarda/

 

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