Tudormania continues its invasion of America. Later this month at the Met, Sondra Radvanovsky will have added the third and final jewel to her Donizetti crown when she sings Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux. And across the continent, Seattle Opera has been presenting its company debut of Maria Stuarda (1835).
Donizetti did not write the so-called “Three Queens” operas as a trilogy per se. Still, all three do share a network of recurring dramatic patterns and even characters. Seattle Opera's Maria Stuarda originated in recent seasons at Minnesota Opera as part of a complete Three Queens trilogy pooling the talents of the same production team: director Kevin Newbury, with sets by Neil Patel, costumes by Jessica Jahn, and lighting by D.M. Wood. The team has explored and suggested certain parallels among the three operas, in the process arriving at some compelling solutions to the challenge of presenting historical opera from the bel canto era for modern audiences.
At the beginning of each act we see a brief pantomime recalling Elizabeth's and Mary's carefree childhood, while the specter of Mary's troubled married life flickers by in her castle prison quarters. Instead of simply vanishing after the first scene of the second act, Elizabeth reappears during Mary's final scenes in a memorable tableau, decked out in a pristine white, fantastical dress – as if in some allegorical masque.
Newbury inserts such tantalising images to archetypal, even mythic, patterns that fan out from the specificity of history (or of Schillerian fantasy-history, as the pivotal encounter between the two queens at Fotheringhay was the playwright's invention, taken over by Donizetti's librettist, Giuseppe Bardari). The approach proves more engaging, to this taste, than the staging by David McVicar, recently revived at the Met, whose abstractions merely flatten out the opera rather than sprinkle it with interpretive spice.
As Elizabeth's courtier, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – whose love for Mary incites her jealousy and seals the Scottish rival's fate – John Tessier negotiated the role's high tenor tessitura admirably but disappointed with monochromatic tone and lackluster phrasing. Michael Todd Simpson was a forceful, unbending Cecil, advisor to Elizabeth and foe to Mary, while Weston Hurt, as Mary's supporter Talbot, made a rather muted impression.
Fortunately, Joyce El-Khoury was a triumph in the title role. Originally assigned as the alternate-cast Mary Stuart (Seattle Opera typically double casts the principal roles), El-Khoury took the place of the suddenly indisposed other soprano on opening night. The latter had to drop out of the production entirely, leaving El-Khoury to sing Mary throughout the run.
Carlo Montanaro's sometimes driven tempi and fierce accents whipped the orchestra into a quasi-Verdian frenzy that at some points overpowered the singers. But his account was passionate and involved and always interesting.
Find Opera now