It’s a meeting which has no real basis in historical fact, yet Friedrich Schiller drew up a scene of two monarchs in a venomous confrontation to boost the emotive content of his drama, on which Maria Stuarda is based. After its 1835 Milan première, the bel canto opera's performances were short-lived: by culminating in the execution of a Catholic queen, it was hardly popular among the pious, and only emerged as part of the standard operatic repertoire in the 1970s.

The curtain in David Alden’s new production here in Zurich opens to the rounded outer walls of a bare castle tower. From opposite sides of the stage, the two monarchs, Elisabetta (Elizabeth I) and Maria Stuarda (Mary, Queen of Scots) in sumptuous, heavy satins – Mary, in sunshine yellow, Elizabeth in blood red – circle around a jewel-studded, velvet crown like two tigers around meaty prey. A huge blue curtain is drawn across the tower walls to make a courtly interior, its vast dimensions quickly moderated by the presence of some sixty singers of the superb supporting Zurich Opera Chorus. 

While in Schiller’s drama, the two queens are weighted equally, Donizetti's opera shifts the focus and our sympathies to the protagonist, Mary. That said, the English queen enjoys more stage time in Act 1, and Serena Farnocchia took that role. Elizabeth’s initial exchange with Robert, Earl of Leicester, largely boils around her jealously of Mary, not only politically, but because she suspects him of loving her rival more. When almost in her arms, he passionately asks Elizabeth to “fulfil my desire” and she assumes he wants to consummate their love. On the contrary, he hopes she will show Mary compassion and release her. If that wouldn’t make a woman jealous, I don’t know what would. 

As the English sovereign, soprano Serena Farnocchia's fire was ferocious and her high voice made the house shudder. Yet disappointingly, her transitions to and from her middle register were often less than smooth, and in the famous rival scene, she did not strike me as a monarch who could carry a nation. Gideon Davey’s stage did her no favours. An enormous white polyurethane stallion lay on its side for her to mount as a throne. Albeit symbol of a mighty reign, it was as cumbersome as it was silly. What’s more, when a parade of chorus members filed downstage making chopping guilltoine gestures, it seemed like overkill, and took Elizabeth’s antagonism a little less seriously. Finally, we had the exaggerated antics of Cecil, Elizabeth’s henchman, wielding a kitchen knife as often as he lugged around a huge double-headed axe. Coiffed and costumed to look like a spindly-legged Arthur Rackham illustration, I found him a whiny nuisance, despite Andrzej Filonczyk’s very fine vocal interpretation of the role.  

Pavol Breslik took the role of Robert, Earl of Leicester, the two queens’ somewhat devious pendant who somehow gets away with having his cake and eating it too. Breslik has a sterling reputation both here in Zurich and elsewhere in the opera world, but in this, a debut role, his voice was somewhat self-conscious and strained, and I found his movements a tad too boyish for a noble suitor.

Act 2 is entirely devoted to Queen Mary’s tribulations and personal tragedy, and in her role debut, Diana Damrau’s performance was stellar. Her voice showed a full spectrum of colour and timbre, and she could as readily curl your heart around a whisper, as be convincing in her resounding dignity. A compassionate duet with George Talbot (the superb Nicolas Testé) made her grief utterly palpable. Later, her “I swear it by God”, before she lay over the prompter’s box for the executioner’s axe, simply made me want to leave the hall for the injustice alone. Damrau was also supported by the humble maid-in-waiting, Anna Kennedy, sung by Zurich Opera’s gifted ensemble member, Hamida Kristoffersen, whom we all hope to hear more from in future.

Throughout, I could have done with far fewer poundings of allusions to death: huge skeletons falling downwards from the ceiling; select courtiers in skull masks; and a transvestite Mary who had blobs of fresh blood all over his face and waved his arms around like a lunatic. Less could have been so much more. For ultimately, Mary’s final message to the courtiers, “Don’t forget how quickly life can pass” is a straightforward lesson for all of us. 


Correction: The fourth paragraph of this review has been amended to reflect an error whereby the author referred to Diana Damrau's Maria rather than Serena Farnocchia's Elisabetta. Apologies to both artists.