The recently-refurbished Opéra Royal de Wallonie dominates the Place de l’Opéra in the Belgian city of Liège, not only with its imposing columned portico but with its new fly-tower which rears above it. Inside, the auditorium has been restored to its former Italianate splendour, and is greatly enhanced by newly-installed stage equipment. This is all good news for Liège’s opera-goers, who, from the evidence of a Sunday matinée performance of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, are a discerning, discriminating and smartly-turned-out lot. The theatre is the ideal size (about 1000 seats) for bel canto, and we were rewarded by some excellent singing and a clever, stripped-down staging which had previously appeared in Rome and in Bergamo.

Maria Stuarda confronts its audience with the continental, Catholic view of Tudor politics. Mary Stuart is a saint and a martyr, while Elizabeth is a textbook villain as bad as, if not worse than, her father. Conveniently for 19th century Italian composers, the evil deeds of an English Protestant monarchy were fair game for their librettists, whereas any criticism of a Catholic ruler would be subject to immediate censorship – as occurred with Verdi’s Rigoletto, where a French king had to be remade into a Mantuan duke. Unfortunately for Donizetti, his Neapolitan patrons included collateral descendents of Mary Stuart, who objected to her portrayal in the opera, and it was not until 1835 that the opera could be given under its present title.

This production, by Francesco Esposito, avoided the main traps for the unwary (tartan, kilts, modern dress, black-and-white Tudorbethan sets) and used a prison-like setting throughout, with a great, threatening grid descending first on Elisabetta’s court and then on Maria’s prison in Fotheringay. Both courts wore costume appropriate to the period, with Elizabeth cantering up to her cousin’s quarters in smartly-tailored hunting attire, red wig aflame. Elisa Barbero’s fine, precise voice and her lively acting (reminiscent, with her sheer sauciness and unpredictability, of Miranda Richardson’s Elizabeth in Blackadder) made the English queen a worthy, if unsympathetic, opponent to Maria.

Leicester, sung by Pietro Picone, showed intonation problems from the start, which sadly got worse as the evening went on. His voice was weak at the passagio, where the chest voice passes to the head voice, and was exposed in all the wrong places, leaving him a full tone flat at one crucial moment in his duet with Elisabetta, “Era d’amor l’immagine”. Talbot, by contrast, sung by Roger Joakim, was dark-voiced and persuasive as he put forward the case for Maria, and he continued to impress throughout the performance, both by his acting and by his musicianly interpretation of Donizetti’s vocal line.

The voice of the afternoon, however, belonged to Martine Reyners as Maria. The scene in which Maria makes her first appearance on stage, surrounded by the shadows of her prison, was thrilling both for Reyners’ compelling acting and for her vocal intensity. Although written for soprano, the role of Maria is often thought of as a mezzo-soprano role, and so it was surprising to see Reyners billed as a soprano, especially as her vocal timbre is as dark as that of many mezzos, and her range extended well down the stave, gaining in intensity and colour the deeper she sang. The contrast with Elisabetta’s much lighter, more agile voice was effective both dramatically and musically, and boded well for the great confrontation between the two queens.

One reason audiences still go to see this splendid opera is the spectacle of one queen calling another “vil bastarda” – a line which was rapidly blocked by censors in the opera’s early days. Elisabetta, fresh from the hunting field, pays a visit on Maria (historically, the two women never met) and provokes her into attacking Elisabetta’s parentage and legitimacy. From Maria’s perspective, Elisabetta is the bastard child of Anna Bolena, and her mere existence profanes the English throne. In this production, the duet involved much by-play with Elisabetta’s riding crop, which Maria seized and used to thwack her cousin resonantly across the farthingale. But the viciousness of the encounter was not masked by the tomfoolery, and in the end Elisabetta, in her imperious rage and scorn, condemns her cousin to death.

Aldo Sisillo conducted the orchestra with all the necessary Donizettian spring and bounce: for a tragedy, Maria Stuarda has many cheerful moments in which the orchestral exuberance seems to contradict the overall gloom of the story. The wind playing suffered some moments of unwanted exposure of rough timbre and uncertain intonation, but the strings were splendid, and the balance in the sympathetic acoustics of the auditorium was good.  The last act gives Maria the stage very largely to herself (apart from the late, unwelcome reappearance of Leicester, who was still out of tune). Reyners was compelling in her pathos and strength as she sang her way through to the opera’s bitter but triumphant end: a moral victory, if not a physical one, with the Scottish queen’s faith and courage steadfast in the face of death.