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TWO outstanding lead sopranos come face to face in Melbourne Opera’s spectacular new production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart).
Elena Xanthoudakis and Rosamund Illing star as Mary and Elizabeth — two rival queens who had never met but were brought together on stage in a bitter confrontation.
They first clashed in Frederich Schiller’s 1800 play Maria Stuart, on which Donizetti based his 1835 opera. What transpires is a dramatic coup that, on one side, provides hope of reconciliation and, on the other, precipitates Elizabeth’s fury and Mary’s eventual execution. But despite royal settings, exertions of political power and Catholic-Protestant warring, a personal, almost domestic tragedy plays out which blasts history apart.
The production is dedicated to and masterfully honours the great exponent of bel-canto repertoire and founding patron of Melbourne Opera, Richard Bonynge.
Lashings of vocal and musical glory is accompanied by an evocative and beautiful staging designed by Christina Logan-Bell. It features the Tudor Rose and period costumes courtesy of Opera Australia’s wardrobes from a past production.
Director Suzanne Chaundy astutely portrays the rising tensions, but fluidity is occasionally lost to royal gesturing and prolonged static ensemble scenes.
Illing is staunch and authoritative as Queen Elizabeth I, weighed down with three magnificent changes of silk and lace opulence, while a face full of scorn, dismissiveness and jealousy reign. Her adrenaline-rich and deeply luscious vocal quality soared while the full range of her voice exhibited technical strength and superlative dramatic shading.
Xanthoudakis imbued Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots) with fortitude, piety and grace — qualities that win her audience sympathy as she spirals into death. Even Mary’s emotional impetuousness and vilification of Elizabeth is served with forgivingness. Xanthoudakis was intoxicating with her cut-diamond clarity of tone, elegant legato, even crescendos and aching trills.
The two clashing queens of powerfully contrasting natures are joined by well-cast soloists and a soundly united, sumptuously blended Melbourne Opera Chorus.
As the heart between two rivals, tenor Henry Choo reached another milestone with an impressive performance, replete with nuanced dramatic and vocal intensity, as Robert, Earl of Leicester.
Caroline Vercoe’s richly warm mezzo-soprano matches her tender, sister-like support as Mary’s companion Anna.
Baritone Phillip Calcagno developed confidently as the sympathetic Earl of Shrewsbury, and Eddie Muliaumaseali’i stood by his queen’s side as his dark bass percolated with determination.
Richard Divall conducted an exciting, in-form Melbourne Opera Orchestra on opening night with incisive tempi to aid the voluminous surges, abatements and sinuousness of Donizetti’s passionate music.
Reviewer - Paul Selar