Gaetano Donizetti, libretto by Giuseppe Bardari
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
Donizetti's opera follows the plot of Schiller's Mary Stuart with its totally unhistorical story of a meeting between Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I in Fotheringhay Park. Like the play, the opera tells the story of Elizabeth's decision finally to have her half-sister executed, driven partly by fear for her position, partly by the split between Protestant and Catholic (for whom, as the daughter of Anne Boleyn, she was "bastarda") and partly by her jealousy of the relationship between Mary and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, with whom she is in love.
Director Antony McDonald also designs and his CV shows a long history of design work for opera and dance and it shows.
The set is magnificent: huge light wood walls mounted on trucks which are wheeled into a number of configurations to create anything from a cell-like atmosphere to a wide open space. Effectively lit by Lucy Carter, it impresses from the moment the curtain goes up. On it McDonald creates some beautiful stage pictures, especially in the tableaux he creates with the chorus.
The costumes, too, are excellent: a mixture of periods, primarily mid-twentieth century but with a touch of the Vcitorian era for the men and something of the glamour of Hollywood for Queen Elizabeth.
Elizabeth's red riding outfit in Act II, which contrasts with the muted colours or, more often, black, white and grey of the rest of the cast, has huge impact and really establishes her dominance. Significantly, as she is led to her execution, Mary wears a dress of the same colour.
And in the final scene, the build-up to Mary's execution, the ladies of the chorus, all in black, enter carrying bunches of white flowers which they lay along the front of the stage. Another very effective moment.
Mary Stuart is beautiful to look at and beautiful to listen to. Antonia Cifrone, as Elizabeth, gets some of the most demanding bel canto arias and handles them with great skill and power, while Sarah Connolly as Mary is the perfect foil, more lyrical but equally powerful. Bülent Bezdüz impresses as the anguished Leicester whilst Frédéric Bourreau, as Mary's staunch supporter George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, is a model of restrained passion. David Kempster's Sir Henry Cecil, Elizabeth's éminence grise, provides solid support, as does Michelle Walton as Hannah Kennedy.
As ever, the Opera North Chorus are powerful and totally in role.
However the production is very static, a series of beautifully realised still pictures: stand (and sit, or lie) and sing rather than the characters' movement reflecting their emotional states. And there were one or two odd directorial choices. In the second scene of Act III, Mary imagines she sees the ghost of her husband Darnley and McDonald has him walk onto the stage - in grey Tudor costume, totally at odds with the rest - and then walk off. He is really a "dagger of the mind" and so to have him appear actually lessens the impact rather than the opposite. It also seems odd and out of place that, in the first act, the French Ambassador, also in Tudor costume (blue this time), should be treated as an almost comic character. And Tudor fashion makes its final appearance in the form of the black garbed executioner.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan