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Once upon a time Gaetano Donizetti’s Mary Stuart (Maria Stuarda) was banned. In 1835, the blistering confrontation between Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart was considered too appalling to be allowed and Milan deemed it unsuitable for public consumption. Perhaps that’s why this English translation is so much fun today.
Brilliant casting of Rosamund Illing as Elizabeth and Elena Xanthoudakis as Mary ratchets the tension of the inevitable meeting between Queens. Although never something that happened in real life Donizetti’s imagining of it combined with these two powerhouse talents creates a wonderfully perverse second act, scorching and humorous in equal measure. It was like watching a faceoff between Vivien Leigh and Shirley MacLaine, inspired and brilliant.
Xanthoudakis either had friends in the audience or was a definite crowd pleaser as Mary. There was clarity, good humour and honesty in her performance as the doomed Queen. Illing as Elizabeth contrasted Mary’s piousness, replete in pearls, embroidery and seething attitude. Henry Choo as the hapless Leicester buffeted between the two women is charming and endearing.
In considering these three characters and the tack that Donizetti took in creating the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary, there was some story telling lacking between Choo and Illing. Much of Elizabeth’s behaviour in this Opera is apparently driven by her love of Leicester and subsequent jealousy of his relationship between him and Mary. It came across as more of an awkward school-girl crush and Leicester seemed curiously ignorant of it, lacking the gall to use it to his advantage on purpose, rather stumbling upon the use of it without guile. Had they been directed differently it would have created more fearsome stakes for Elizabeth and Mary and a more interesting character of Leicester. As a result, the first act lacked some of the specificity and clarity of the second. The third act faltered only in its scene between Elizabeth and Leicester but was otherwise strong.
Beyond these three, there was not a seamless strength of performance amongst the supporting cast. All the vocal performances were strong however some as actors were more self-conscious than others.
Christina Logan-Bel’s set design is unobtrusive and striking in equal measure. Abstract set pieces contrast with the traditional costumes by Jennie Tate, reflecting the similar contrast between Elizabeth and Mary. The combination is effective and evocative of time, place and mood.
Overall, the effect of this new production is vivacious and enjoyable. On a side note, the politics of the bows once the show was finished deserve a special mention (although perhaps unique only to this one evening). Even if you’re not an opera fan, this is a fantastic opportunity to see a clash of the titans of the soprano world.
by Lauren Williams