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).

Joyce El-Khoury makes our Seattle Opera debut in title role of <i>Maria Stuarda</i> © Jacob Lucas
Joyce El-Khoury makes our Seattle Opera debut in title role of Maria Stuarda
© Jacob Lucas

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. 

Mary Elizabeth Williams (Elizabeth I) © Philip Newton
Mary Elizabeth Williams (Elizabeth I)
© Philip Newton
Instead of an 'either/or' approach – go for period style? to regie or not to regie? – they've come up with an appealing fusion of both, avoiding bland convention but also shunning an aggressively reductive agenda. Throughout, an imposing coffered ceiling looms over the action, while far upstage a screen is variously, at times spookily, lit. The costumes seem to anchor us in the correct historical era, but the spare look overall veers toward abstraction. A pair of wheeled staircases (from which the queens respectively descend when we first encounter each) symbolises their status and present condition: a pulpit from which Elizabeth negotiates her public image, followed by a taller but eerie steel skeleton that suggests Mary's prison enclosure. A vast reproduction of Titian's Frari altarpiece, The Assumption of the Virgin, twice descends to dominate the scene at Elizabeth's court when she is seen at her most conflicted.

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. 

Michael Todd Simpson (Cecil) © Philip Newton
Michael Todd Simpson (Cecil)
© Philip Newton
If only the cast were as compelling. At the performance on 9 March, – the first I was able to attend, featuring the same cast that sang opening night – Mary Elizabeth Williams proved to be a riveting actress as Elizabeth, visibly torn between knowing her emotional vulnerability and her pride. Vocally, however, this formidable Verdian tended toward a forcefulness that never quite seemed suited to the weight needed for Donizetti's coloratura: always full of feeling and warmth, but a touch too harsh around the edges. Intonational insecurity only compounded these shortcomings.

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.

Joyce El-Khoury (Mary Stuart) and Renée Rapier (Hannah) © Philip Newton
Joyce El-Khoury (Mary Stuart) and Renée Rapier (Hannah)
© Philip Newton
But even apart from her heroic feat in saving the production (including a matinee performance the day after opening night), El-Khoury revealed star power and superb vocal presence. Floating and spinning Donizetti's melodies with true bel canto sensibility – and never settling for merely pretty singing – she movingly conveyed Mary's state of despair and final acceptance of her inevitable demise. Her two scenes in the second act were completely riveting and even cathartic. Renée Rapier was a touching Hannah, Mary's devoted servant. Excellent work from the chorus completed the picture.

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.