Following its excursion into the world of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Melbourne Opera is back on its home territory, presenting fairly constrained productions of the classics. Last night’s production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda was an example of the company at its best.
Maria Stuarda is the central work of the three “Tudor Queen” operas Donizetti wrote in the 1830s (the others being Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux) and arguably the best of them. The libretto was by an impossibly young Giuseppe Bardari, based on a play by Schiller, and presents a highly fictionalised version of the last year or so in the life of Mary Queen of Scots, who by that stage had been confined in England for almost 20 years, and was under sentence of death for an alleged plot against Elizabeth I. It is a powerful and dramatic work and, unusually for Donizetti, is focused on two large female roles: Maria and Elisabetta. While separate for most of the opera, the two queens indulge in the famous insult-trading scene at the end of Act 1 – an event which is a trifle bizarre as in real life they never actually met.
In the title role of Maria we had the welcome return of Helena Dix, who has made quite a career in opera houses all over the world. She was excellent in the role, handling both the music and drama with expertise, taste and finesse. I was particularly looking forward to the great prayer “Deh! Tu di un úmile preghiera il suono odi”/”Ah! May Thou hear the sound of our humble prayer” at the end of Act II, and I was not disappointed.
Elisabetta was sung by Eleanor Greenwood, whom I was seeing on stage for the first time. She too was excellent. It is not an easy role; Elisabetta is bitter and conflicted, and with the exception of the verbal brawl with Maria there are limited dramatic opportunities. She suited the part admirably, and was totally at ease with the vocal demands. I hope we can see her in more roles.
Unusually for grand opera, but understandably in this case, the male roles are less prominent. The main one is Roberto, Earl of Leicester, a former intimate of Elisabetta, and Maria’s principal advocate. This was sung superbly by tenor Henry Choo. I am always impressed and moved by his performances. The other male roles: Lord Cecil sung by bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i and Lord Talbot sung by baritone Christopher Hillier were solid and quite satisfactory.
The production led by director Suzanne Chaundy with set design by Christine Logan-Bell was excellent. It was quite a traditional setting, which is entirely appropriate for such a work. The small Athenaeum stage presents quite a challenge but the action flowed very effectively without giving a sensation of being congested.
The musical direction by the highly experienced Raymond Lawrence was admirable. One comes to expect the occasional slip in synchronisation between singers and orchestra but tonight all was as it should be. The orchestra did have occasional rough spots early in the work but performed very well overall, given its size and the rather cramped pit.
As mentioned above, this is Melbourne Opera at its best, and if you read this review before the short season is over, go and see it. At a time when Melbourne is being starved of significant opera productions it is an opportunity that should not be missed. Were there things I would have liked changed? Certainly I wished it was on a bigger stage; the Athenaeum is really too confined to do it justice.
To close – some musings on the opera itself. As is commonly noted, Maria Stuarda had a limited impact when it was first performed and fairly quickly vanished from the regular repertoire until the bel canto revival in the mid-20th century. This is often attributed to the difficult aspects of the plot, with its elements of religious conflict and very strong language, which led to significant censorship in the early productions. I suspect that a major reason was that while his comic and melodramatic works such as Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore had lasting appeal, his handling of complex and challenging dramatic texts did not really measure up to that Verdi, who became prominent in Donizetti’s later years, and who dominated that aspect of opera for decades to come.
Photo credit Robin Halls.
Jim Breen reviewed Melbourne Opera’s production of “Maria Stuarda” performed at the Athenaeum Theatre on September 9, 2023.