Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, contains a brilliantly dramatic confrontation between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. Rival queens – the former Protestant, the latter Catholic – meet in Fotheringhay Park at the suggestion of the Earl of Leicester, with whom both are in love. He hopes the Queens might make amends, which in turn might lead to Mary being freed from the imprisonment to which Elizabeth has sentenced her. But things fall to pieces: the women despise each other, and although Mary at first attempts humility and reconciliation, Elizabeth insults Mary by implying that her morals are suspect. Mary, losing control, calls Elizabeth a “vile bastard”, a reference to her mother, Anne Boleyn, not being married (in the eyes of the Church) to Henry VIII at the time of her birth. Rage ensues; it is a thrilling scene in both opera and play. And in the final act, Elizabeth sentences Mary to death. The last two scenes are entirely Mary’s – her feelings, her confession, her prayer, her execution.

Of course, the Fotheringhay meeting never actually took place, except in Schiller’s imagination and Donizetti’s opera. It is the over-the-top centerpiece of a marvelous work, one that received its Met première just three years ago. It is great fodder for two sopranos (or some combination of mezzo and soprano); each gets solo scenes and parts in duets in addition to work in ensembles and the Fotheringhay confrontation. At the opera’s first rehearsal, in 1834, the two singers actually came to blows, with Elizabeth punching Mary in the face and chest and Mary hurling Elizabeth to the floor.

David McVicar has drawn the characters well; he has continued the idealization of Mary that Schiller and Donizetti wanted. She was hardly the shrinking sweetie living under the thumb of the stalking, hateful Elizabeth; Mary could connive with the best of them. But it doesn’t matter: this opera needs a good queen and a bad queen and in the graceful, lovely Mary and the clumsy, overly-made-up, galumphing Elizabeth, who snarls and menaces, we get what is called for. There are rarely distractions from elsewhere on the stage: the focus is on the soloists, who actually appear to be paying attention to one-another. 

John MacFarlane’s sets are epically ugly or less: the opening scene showcases a celebration with acrobats and fire-eaters, but the unadorned walls and ceiling are a disquieting blood red; Fotheringhay Park offers ugly, bare trees and a looming grey sky. The final scene, with black walls, is dominated by a long staircase leading to the executioner’s block; everyone on stage is in black. But as Mary is led to the executioner, she drops her outer garment to reveal a blood-red dress. McVicar directs with a pro-Catholic bias if ever there was one: Mary is swan-like and pious and Elizabeth is manly and walks as if physically maimed – an outward manifestation of her inner corruptness. And MacFarlane has costumed Mary in simple but elegant black while Elizabeth, after Act I, is wearing clothing that should not happen to a dog. 

Donizetti’s original Maria, a soprano, never sang it due to censorship reasons; Maria Malibran, who eventually did, had a voice that sat lower than the original scoring. The Met’s première outing, three years ago, featured the remarkable mezzo Joyce DiDonato as Maria, singing a version of the score revised for Malibran; Dame Janet Baker had great success with a similar edition many years ago. New Yorkers and record collectors had only (except for Dame Janet’s) been accustomed to hearing soprano Marias: Sills, Sutherland, Gencer, Caballé, and the tradition has returned in the person of Sondra Radvanovsky, who sang the title role in Anna Bolena earlier in the season and will sing Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux later, the first soprano to perform such a feat at the Met. Radvanovsky gets better with each outing, the voice remaining impressive while becoming more beautiful. Not exactly a coloratura, she can nonetheless handle the roulades with ease, she can spin a long pianissimo phrase that Caballé would be proud of, and her high Cs and Ds are gigantic and right on. She phrases and acts with the ability of Sills, getting into the character with inflections and gestures large and small. Her lengthy final scenes were sung to a hushed, enrapt, audience.

South African soprano Elza van den Heever, a tall imposing woman with a voice to match, sings the less-sympathetic music of Elizabeth with verve and accuracy and manages to portray the grotesqueness that McVicar and MacFarlane impose upon her. By turns moody, angry, and angrier, she’s the character one loves to hate.

The men in the opera are less interesting, but impressed nonetheless. Young tenor Celso Albelo threw himself into the role of Leicester, singing through the mask a bit much, but with ringing top notes. Most of the role sits in the treacherous e-f-g-a area of the voice, but Albelo handled it well. Patrick Carfizzi as Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and instigator of Mary’s execution, offered advice to the queen ferociously. Kwangchul Youn sang Talbot, Mary’s eventual confessor, with sensitivity. Riccardo Frizza, a bel canto specialist, led a no-hold-barred, quick performance but managed to highlight the delicacy of Mary’s vocal lines as well. The Met Orchestra and Chorus left no room for criticism.

Even removing one star for the sheer ugliness of the production, this revival is a brilliant success.