It was with great curiosity that I set off for the Barbican on Saturday night. I’ve never been to see an opera in the cinema before – I don’t think I’ve even sat through a pre-recorded film of an opera for many years, as I am a great fan of the “real thing”: opera performed live on stage. And yet I was extremely keen to find out what an opera filmed live, in front of a packed audience, and broadcast around the world was like, so off I went! Tonight’s performance was of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, one of the Tudor operas telling the tale of the stormy relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots over a span of many years until her execution. A stellar cast were on hand to bring the story to life, with Joyce DiDonato as the title character, joined by Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth.

Elza van den Heever as Elisabetta and Joyce DiDonato as the title character in Donizetti's Maria Stu © Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Elza van den Heever as Elisabetta and Joyce DiDonato as the title character in Donizetti's Maria Stu
© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

The Met opera stage is truly enormous, and the striking set was dominated by a huge platform; it was as if all the action were happening on the scaffold itself. The opera opened with a remarkably athletic performance from a set of acrobats and circus performers, which provided a few opening laughs and took full advantage of the obviously extravagant costume budget; every character looked as if they had walked straight out of the past – no shortcuts were made for the stage here, and this was shown on screen. Elizabeth (van den Heever) had a rather masculine quality about her, striding about the stage with none of the regal bearing or grace with which we usually associate with historical monarchs. I was rather unsure about this at the start, but this manly portrayal certainly made sense of the Virgin Queen and provided a stark contrast to DiDonato’s Mary: a strong woman, who stuck by her beliefs until the bitter end, DiDonato was extraordinarily compelling.

The great advantage of the film camera is that it can catch the slightest nuance of emotion on a person’s face, and in this respect, Joyce DiDonato was in her element. Her characterisation was simply stunning, with every emotion shown clearly in HD. I did wonder how this translated for the live audience at the Met, as they did not have the advantage of the close up to grasp every flicker on the singers’ face. However, there were moments when I longed to see the bigger picture of what was going on onstage, so of course compromises have to be made.

The end of Act I ends with a tempestuous confrontation between the two queens in which their different characters are clearly shown. Accompanied by the Earl of Leicester (Matthew Polenzani) and Talbot (Matthew Rose), this scene highlighted the incredible vocal agility of all the lead performers in tonight’s cast. The wonderfully slimy Leicester was incredibly impressive, reaching with ease notes that would strike fear into the heart of many a tenor. The versatility and control of the female leads was breathtaking, especially the dynamic control of DiDonato, whose beautiful high notes were at times magically quiet and effortlessly controlled.

During the interval, all the lead roles, the director and the set designer were interviewed backstage about the show. I have to admit; I was less than thrilled with this part of the cinema experience. Not only did it completely shatter the illusion, but having experienced singing in a full-length opera myself, I could only think: “leave the poor people alone to catch their breath a little”. The score is incredibly vocally demanding and emotionally fraught, and for the singers to have to think up answers to occasionally quite ridiculous questions was surely not at all helpful while they were preparing for the second half. However, I was interested to hear about the director’s vision for the show and the set designer’s inspiration.

In Act II, the tragedy really unfolds, as Mary is sentenced to death and journeys to the scaffold. Usually, some artistic license is used and the characters remain the same age, even though historically many years have passed. However, in this production the director was keen to show the passing of years: Elizabeth is no longer the energetic young woman and Mary is also showing the toll of her confinement. The heartbreaking score, combined with the wonderful acting of van den Heever and DiDonato, ensured that I, along with many, was in tears as Maria Stuarda walked to her death. My only wish is that I could have been in the Met theatre to experience the whole thing in person.