Opera Seria continues to amaze. This small and brave company, brim full of ambition, has just completed a cycle of Donizetti operas with this melodramatic tale of the rivalry between Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and her Protestant cousin Elizabeth. Who cares that they did not actually meet in real life! The confrontation scene at the end of Act I provides one of the most memorable climaxes in the whole of opera, with the two queens in full flow insulting each other. The duet was well worth waiting for at this first-night performance in the RNCM’s Studio Theatre, after a late start (due to a principal getting tangled up with heavy traffic) and an insoluble problem with the surtitles, which had to be turned off.

Rochelle Hart (Maria Stuarda) © Adam Swann
Rochelle Hart (Maria Stuarda)
© Adam Swann

It did not matter that much; Heather Lupton, as a pale and severe-faced Elisabetta, dominated proceedings from the moment she first sailed in, elaborately-costumed, a flagship of state, to declare that a chaste love from Heaven had singled her out - “Ah! Quando all’ara scorgemi”. She conveyed a harshness which would grow as the opera progressed, but an intimate softness as well, when she dealt with Leicester (Michael Doreszenko), who nevertheless appeared non-assertive next to her. Doroszenko’s rather delicate tenor voice has fine, lyrical qualities, though he was not in the same category as his two powerful lovers. He exuded a kind of creepiness which fitted the character, and faltered a little in “Era d’amor l’immagine” (She was the picture of love), his duet with Lupton in Act I. He showed that he had picked up more confidence and strength in Act II, as he pleaded for mercy for Maria, in the trio with Elizabeth and Cecil: “Ah! Deh! Perpieta sospendi l’estremo colpo almeno” (Alas! For pity’s sake at least spare the final blow) when he was more impressive.

Rochelle Hart was as magnificent a Maria Stuarda as I was expecting, recalling her as Anna Bolena two years ago, when Heather Lupton had the trousers role of Smeton in the same production. The phrase ‘up and coming’ is redundant for Hart, because she has certainly made it into the upper echelons, and not only in this remarkable company, which has a full spectrum of talent, from newly professional right through to enthusiastically amateur. The chorus is audition-free (hard to believe) and has members who are “community-based”. Hart was at her fierce best when expressing contempt and disgust, and it was mainly because of her contribution that the confrontation scene was so stunning, with her still-shocking insult “Profanato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!” (The English throne is profaned, vile bastard, by your foot) just before she spat on the ground - rather daintily. Both Hart and Lupton had all the ornamentations required by Donizetti well under control, making all of them dramatically significant partly, I suppose, because director Sarah Helsby-Hughes is a terrific coloratura herself.

Heather Lupton (Elisabetta) © Adam Swann
Heather Lupton (Elisabetta)
© Adam Swann

Ian McFarlane was strong and confident as Cecil, and Anna Louise Costello was splendid as Anna, Maria’s companion. But it was Rory Mulchrone's Talbot whose rich baritone voice stood out in my mind. In his debut performance with Opera Seria, he showed great promise.

The energetic chamber orchestra, conducted by Juan Ortuno, worked miracles with scarcely a stumble, and the diction and pronunciation of all of the singers was of a high standard. Some of the period costumes were unnecessarily garish and predictable, but others, Heather Lupton’s, for example, seem to have received hours of detailed care and attention. Maria’s exit to the scaffold in the finale could have been made even more dramatic by doing something about the executioner from the Halloween party: perhaps an ominous shadow would have been better.