Maria Stuarda, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, September 2013Posted on 14 September 2013
In Schiller’s play Maria Stuart, the original drama for this Donizetti opera, Elizabeth I meets Mary Queen of Scots. Such a meeting never took place, but it makes for gripping theatre, and this second opera in the WNO ‘Three Queens’ series is a winner.
The designs by Madeleine Boyd continue to use the sombre black costumes of Anna Bolena, with Mary the only big splash of colour in her tartan skirt and brown leather. In Act I she doesn’t appear in the opera, but her presence behind a glass screen is effective, as is the mirror trick between the two queens in the early part of Act III.
Judith Howarth was an affecting Mary, dramatically subtle and with a very pretty tone to her voice. She was well complemented by other members of the cast, particularly Bruce Sledge as Leicester singing with a gloriously heroic tone, and their duet in Act II was a beautiful moment. So too was her Act III meeting with Talbot, strongly sung by bass Alastair Miles, whose sympathetic and dignified performance contrasted with the more sinuous portrayal of Lord Cecil, robustly sung by Gary Griffiths. The Elizabeth of Romanian soprano Adina Nitescu was invested with considerable vocal power, but tending to stridency at climactic moments, and the Act III trio with Cecil and Leicester was a high point.
With excellent direction by Graeme Jenkins in the orchestra pit, a superb chorus, and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones giving a fine portrayal of Mary’s companion, this was a joy. Good stage direction by Rudolf Frey, and I only wish the timeless feel of the anonymous black costumes were not spoiled by Mary’s smoking a cigarette, Leicester’s suicide with a pistol, and the appalling Madonna-like leather bodice with breasts and nipples for Mary at the end. Historically, Mary took great care choosing the clothes, including underwear, for her execution, and this egregious addition spoiled the effect.
But musically, my goodness, as the final notes from the orchestra die away one needs a brief moment of silence, yet some clown in the audience spoiled the effect for everyone, including the singers, with a wounded shriek of “rubbish!” If this was meant for the design team it should have been reserved for their appearance at the curtain calls. If for any other purpose it proves that Donizetti’s creation still grips the emotions, as surely as it did in the 1830s. At the original rehearsals in Naples the two queens came to physical blows during the hurled insult of ‘vil bastarda’, and the opera was banned after the dress rehearsal. Revived in Milan a year later the term bastarda was censored, and the story goes that the famous Maria Malibran disregarded the newly agreed words and launched into the original.
All thumpingly good stuff. Unmissable, and the meeting of the two queens is worth the full price of the ticket.
Performances continue as follows: Cardiff, Sept 22 (4:00), and Oct 5 (7:15); then on Thursdays at Swansea, Oct 10 (7:00); Oxford, Oct 17 (7:15); Liverpool, Oct 24 (7:15); Bristol, Nov 7 (7:15); Birmingham, Nov 14 (7:15); Llandudno, Nov 21 (7:15); Southampton, Nov 28 (7:15).