Mary I was the Tudor least likely to be involved in a love triangle, let alone the turgid quadrangle Victor Hugo created in his 1833 play, Marie Tudor. But Hugo wasn’t interested in historical accuracy as much as the opportunity to use Mary and her court as a pretext for a critique of the injustice of the status quo. Shorn of those polemics, Giovanni Pacini was left with the love quadrangle as the focus for 1843’s Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra and thus a Mary who acts more like the operatic versions of her half-sister Elizabeth I and cousin Mary Stuart, and a plot many of whose situations echo Donizetti’s 1833 Roberto Devereux. The libretto further distances the action from fact by substituting a fictional Lord Chancellor, Walter (Gualtiero) Churchill, for the actual Spanish ambassador, Simon Renard. Fenimoore, a Scotsman, stands in for the fictional half Spanish, half Italian, and equally unprincipled, Fabio Fabiani. Surrounded by conniving, manipulative men with no redeeming characteristics, Mary bonds in a Norma/Adalgisa sisterhood of betrayal with Clotilde, an orphan promised to her guardian, Ernesto Malcom, but seduced by Fenimoore, the Queen’s lover who loves no one but himself and power and who knows Clotilde’s true identity – the recently deceased Earl of Talbot’s sole heir. A dagger, an amulet, a scarf, a ring, various seals and coats-of-arms, and a Sardou switcheroo which backfires as badly as the one in Tosca spur the plot. Some of these plot twists couldn’t help but raise titters and outright laughter despite the sincerity of everyone onstage and in the pit.

Alisa Jordheim (Clotilde) and Amy Shoremont-Obra (Maria) © Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films
Alisa Jordheim (Clotilde) and Amy Shoremont-Obra (Maria)
© Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films

Panels of vertical grey slats hang from the flies to mark the performing space in Odyssey Opera's performance. Dramatic lighting and the use of silhouettes add variety and create striking images. At one point in Act 2, Mary’s guards in their blood red greatcoats stand in darkness in a line against the back panel each spotlit in red like great gouts of blood. Fenimoore’ s march and ascent to the gallows unfolds in slow motion silhouette behind the singers, images so arresting they distract from the drama downstage. Minimal furnishings and mime set the various scenes. A panel with a Tudor rose design behind a grand upholstered chair suffices for the throne room while chorus members with long poles mime punting as the rest glide along the stage for the opening Thames chorus and Fenimoore’s later arrival by boat. Costumes suggest another time and place but no specific period, though, when the chorus portrays the people, its garb is close to contemporary casual. Mary is in bright red recalling her antagonists’ Bloody Mary sobriquet.

Alisa Jordheim (Clotilde) and Leroy Davis (Ernesto Malcolm) © Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films
Alisa Jordheim (Clotilde) and Leroy Davis (Ernesto Malcolm)
© Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films

Despite the best efforts of Gil Rose and the cast, the expository first act was dramatically slack thanks mostly to Pacini’s formulaic procession of arias and cabalettas. It only began to pick up steam with Ernesto and Fenimoore’s confrontation and Churchill, Ernesto, and the chorus’ rousing oath-swearing ensemble which leaves blood on the moon and the stage bathed in red as the curtain falls. However, the plot doesn’t quicken until the title character makes her first appearance at the top of Act 2. The chorus sings of joy and celebration but Amy Shoremont-Obra looks anything but happy and gives vent to her doubts and conflicting emotions in a powerful yet supple voice, playing with light and shadow and discreetly embellishing the repeat of her cabaletta. She has no respite except in her duet with Clotilde when initial rage softens to understanding and affection. Standing next to the imposing Shoremont-Obra, Alisa Jordheim seemed like a child but her rounded voice with its tonal quality of a gold flute belied the image. Act 3’s “Ciel che vedi il mio rimorso” illustrated Clotilde’s determined and defiant side and the more dramatic qualities of Jordheim’s voice.

Amy Shoremont-Obra (Maria) © Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films
Amy Shoremont-Obra (Maria)
© Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films

Kameron Lopreore was inconsistent. A bleat soon vanished as his voice warmed but the stamina necessary for this demanding role flagged and slower, more lyrical passages suffered most. Shifty eyes and notable five o’clock shadow gave the scheming Fenimoore a notable Nixonian cast and called into question the sanity of anyone who would trust, let alone love him. Leroy Davis’ youthful appearance and baritone with its tenor colors made Ernesto a plausible object of Clotilde’s affection, though an occasional buzz crept in to impede clarity and some odd pronunciation distracted. James Demler conveyed the zealotry behind Churchill’s machinations with a firm, dark voice. All he did he did for Queen and country, a justification which triggers Mary’s final aria, bordering on hysteria, before she collapses as the curtain falls.

Yet again, Gil Rose made a convincing case for a flawed work while also introducing two voices with bright futures- Jordheim and Davis.

****1