Dust off your history books and be prepared for a bel canto diva-off set in Tudor England. This David McVicar production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda pits legendary American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Mary Queen of Scots against young powerhouse South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Queen Elizabeth.

Maria Stuarda is the middle-child of Donizetti’s operatic Tudor-trilogy. The first, Anna Bolena, rang in the 2011–12 Met season and the final, Roberto Devereux, is still in planning. Mr. McVicar, who was also responsible for the production of Anna Bolena, has once again offered Met audiences a visually attractive, traditional production. John Mcfarlane’s strongly historical set design and costumes are complimented by fellow Scotsman Mr. McVicar’s simple, strong images. The opening tableau of the lion and dragon fighting over a crown; the opening scene full of revelers all in white against a blood-red background; and the second scene, full of stark tree trunks stripped bare against a barren sky, with the protagonists all in black, underscore the drama behind all the bel canto beauty.

Maria Stuarda is clearly the more sympathetic character in Giuseppe Bardari’s libretto, which is understandable considering his nationality and the climate of the day. For a nineteenth century Italian audience, Mary was the good Roman Catholic ousted by the heretical Protestant, Elizabeth, bastard child of Henry the VIII and Anne Boleyn. Both women are treated in the literature of the day as being impetuous, strong-willed and jealous, and Elizabeth of having a much darker character than our Anglo depictions of her as “Good Queen Bess”.

Elza van den Heever’s portrayal of Elizabeth is therefore entirely appropriate. Vocally regal and in complete technical command, there is nothing soft or feminine about this monarch. She lumbers across the stage wearing outfits that enhance her masculine bearing and her voice rings imperiously through the hall. Her opening “Ah! Quando all'ara scorgemi” displays her strength and stature and fills our every corner of the hall. Joyce DiDonato’s portrayal of Mary is richly varied and borders on perfection. Listening to her vocal beauty, color, nuance, phrase and musicality (not to mention complete technical prowess) one doubts that this role could ever be realized more effectively. Her committed portrayal of the doomed Maria Stuarda will certainly go down in history as defining, and she produced some of the most beautiful vocal moments one could ask for over the course of the evening, beginning with her opening aria “Oh nube! che lieve per l'aria ti aggiri”. The fictional meeting of the two powerhouses to end the first act is masterful – both women trading insults with increased hostility as Mary seals her fate by refusing to cower before the vindictive Elizabeth.

The supporting cast is also strong, featuring tenor Matthew Polenzani, no stranger to the house, as Leicester, the object of both women’s affections. He brings ease, focus and power to his scenes, and is also a masterful ensemble player. His duet “Se fida tanto” with bass Matthew Rose, playing George Talbot, a nobleman loyal to Mary, is remarkable. Rose, with his rich bass voice, exudes dignified strength and sympathy for Mary throughout her exile and while awaiting her death. His counterpart, William Cecil played by baritone Joshua Hopkins is particularly effective in his scenes pushing Elizabeth to sign Mary’s death warrant. Maria Zifchak rounds out this strong cast in her sympathetic portrayal of Mary’s servant, Jane Kennedy.

With Maurizio Benini at the baton, all of the principles as well as the orchestra are in good hands. From the exposed clarinet work in the overture to the musically rich dénouement, one can focus entirely on the drama.