Bel canto is a broad church. If you come to Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda expecting glittering decoration to impress you with the singers’ virtuosity, you’re in the wrong place. This is a tragic story of a brutal event in which the human voice is being used in all its variety, expressiveness – and yes, beauty – to paint emotions and conflicts. At Dutch National Opera, where Jetske Mijnssen's new production follows last year’s excellent Anna Bolena, all five main roles were sung with outstanding expression and beauty.

Kristina Mkhitaryan (Maria Stuarda), Aigul Akhmetshina (Elisabetta)
© Dutch National Opera | Ben van Duin

The recent Hollywood movie Amsterdam starts with the rider “some of this actually happened”. The phrase applies pretty accurately to Schiller’s telling of the historical events leading up to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. Mary and Elizabeth never met and there’s no evidence that Mary was ever in love with Leicester, but there’s plenty of evidence that she was a continual schemer, far from the “wronged innocent” portrayed here and in her letters. Still, Schiller’s fictional additions turn the tale into a compelling psychological drama, which Donizetti’s music ratchets up by many notches.

Maria Stuarda
© Dutch National Opera | Ben van Duin

Kristina Mkhitaryan was phenomenal in the title role. Her voice soared and swooped through melodies in a way that transported one almost to an out-of-body experience. It won’t have surprised anyone that Aigul Akhmetshina, as her antagonist Elizabeth I, produced immaculate vocal quality, with sweetness of tone in all registers and elegance of phrasing at all speeds. But this is the first time I’ve seen Akhmetshina sing with such inner steel: the mental tug of war between her and Mkhitaryan was utterly captivating, as we heard the ebb and flow of their voices incarnating the ebb and flow of power between the two queens. Mary can grasp the moral high ground, but it’s Elizabeth who will decide her life or death, so the moment when Mary loses all restraint and brands Elizabeth as a bastard and the “impura figlia di Bolena” is the crux of the drama; it was delivered like a thunderbolt. Most listeners to Maria Stuarda over the ages haven’t even heard this line, since it caused a scandal at the premiere and was censored for much of the opera’s history.

The three male singers could not be faulted. Ismael Jordi’s tenor had warmth, smoothness and immense appeal; Leicester may be an ineffectual character in this opera but Jordi made you want him to succeed at every turn. Simon Mechliński was an authoritative Cecil, demanding Mary’s head in such a potent bass-baritone as to make the outcome seem inevitable. Aleksei Kulagin was a persuasive Talbot.

Katarina Mkhitaryan (Maria Stuarda)
© Dutch National Opera | Ben van Duin

But it’s the ensembles that hit home most, the duets between Elizabeth and Leicester, between Leicester and Talbot and between the two queens all deliver giant doses of tension between characters. It’s a tribute to conductor Enrique Mazzola that orchestral balance and audibility were perfect regardless of how many singers were performing – from duet, trio, quartet up to a massive choral number at the close, with the chorus in splendid voice. If the orchestral parts of Maria Stuarda don’t call attention to themselves as much as they do in other Donizetti works, like Lucia di Lammermoor, it’s because they don’t need to; the orchestral parts drive the voices which drive the drama.

Kristina Mkhitaryan (Maria Stuarda), Ismael Jordi (Leicester)
© Dutch National Opera | Ben van Duin

Anyone directing Maria Stuarda faces the problem that not very much happens. There’s much debate and plenty of interpersonal drama, but there’s only one event that really matters – Mary’s eventual execution. Wisely, Mijnssen makes no attempt at realism, preferring a dark, compressed stage where brief highlights of brilliant white illuminate the dreams, hopes and fears of her two protagonists. Mary, who is terrified of Elizabeth, see multiple copies of Elizabeth, clad in white shot with silver. Elizabeth sees multiple black-clad copies of Mary; she sees Mary dressed for coronation as Queen of England with orb and sceptre (her worst fear realised); she falls into the throng of a fevered white wedding where the bride and groom are drenched in blood, a vision of her father Henry VIII’s wedding to Jane Seymour after her mother’s execution, which forms the end of Anna Bolena, the previous opera in Donizetti’s Tudor cycle.

The images come a little too thick and fast, perhaps, to be easy to follow. But one can only praise the way Mijnssen and Mazzola have worked with the singers. The combination of physical acting and voice production imparted such urgency to every scene that this opera gripped from start to finish.