With the Platinum Jubilee this weekend, the Queens of England are a popular subject at the moment. Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda harks back to another era, to the other Queen Elizabeth (the First) and a fictitious meeting between her and her rival, Mary Queen of Scots. In Tom Creed's new production for Irish National Opera, we were treated to the excellent vocal displays of mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught as Maria Stuarda and Anna Devin as her nemesis, Elisabetta.

Anna Devin (Elisabetta)
© Pat Redmond

Creed moves the action of the opera from the 16th century to the 21st in a bid to make the action more relevant. So the opening scene is no longer filled with Elizabethan courtiers but with television crews and journalists. In Act 2 Elisabetta signs her rival’s death warrant at a bare desk with a lonely photocopier while at the end the supporters of the doomed Queen Mary file up with placards of support which read “I am Mary”. Creed’s vision doesn’t fully convince and at times is compounded by some absurd costumes from Katie Davenport. The most egregious examples are the Elizabethan soldiers dressed in what appear to be white onesie suits, with red football socks and a Busby hat, which look risible and distract from the climax of Act 1 when Maria tells Elisabetta in no uncertain terms what she thinks of her. At the end of the opera, the mourning supporters are in the most lurid costumes imaginable, which may suit a circus but not a place of execution. Otherwise the costumes feature sharp suits and stilettos for Elisabetta, dark suits or tweed for the men and a flowery, hippy dress for Maria.

Maria Stuarda at Irish National Opera
© Pat Redmond

But the singing, particularly from Erraught and Devin, really made this production. Erraught caressed her pianissimo runs with exquisite finesse. It was a voice that inspired pity that would have moved even the stoniest of hearts. Her Act 2 scene with Talbot dripped with feeling. But she could let it rip too, Maria's insults glowing with indignant fierceness at the end of Act 1.

Equally compelling was her arch enemy, sung by Devin. Possessing a powerful soprano with expert control in all registers, Devin successfully gave us a nuanced Elisabetta who was more than just a two dimensional character hell-bent on revenge. At times, we got to see the fragile, uncertain side to this queen, vacillating on what is the right course of action, under the sway of both her own conscience and her various different courtiers. From her brash opening in a lurid Union Jack suit, Devin showed poise and control, her taut vibrato giving way to moments of tenderness. There were some spectacular high notes too as her anger and jealousy spilled over at the Earl of Leicester’s pleading for clemency.

Tara Erraught (Maria Stuarda) and Arthur Espiritu (Leicester)
© Pat Redmond

Leicester, tenor Arthur Espiritu, is at the centre of a love triangle, torn between the two queens as a catalyst to the plot. Espiritu was somewhat of a disappointment, both vocally and dramatically. He started off in underwhelming fashion and although his voice did open up through the evening, it lacked sufficient heft to make him a convincing presence. Dramatically, he didn’t have any type of chemistry with either Erraught or Devin, making his indecisiveness between the two queens unconvincing. Callum Thorpe’s Talbot possessed a powerful voice at times, such as his duet with Erraught, too powerful as he mansplained how Maria should face death. Giorgio Caoduro’s Lord Cecil was a suitably unctuous and conniving adviser to Elisabetta.

The members of the INO Chorus were in excellent voice and sang out with enthusiasm at the opening prospects of Elisabetta’s nuptials with France and with suitable sorrow at the impending execution of Maria at the end. A final word of commendation goes to conductor Fergus Sheil who led the orchestra with vim and vigour, reflecting the mercurial changes of mood of Donizetti’s score.