It tends to be Donizetti who is remembered for his vivid operatic depictions of the Tudor court, but before his Roberto Devereux, another composer’s Elizabeth I sat enthroned on the stage. Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra was the first in a series of operas that Rossini was commissioned to write for the San Carlo Theatre in Naples. It was, by all accounts, a tough gig. The Neapolitans were a hard crowd to please and innately suspicious of a young Northerner whose reputation might not have been justified by the quality of his compositions. Elisabetta appears to have quashed their suspicions as efficiently as a Tudor execution, but does the work deserve a place in the modern repertoire? English Touring Opera seems to think so, including it in its trio of ‘royal’ operas this season, but the company’s new production – as ever valiantly staged across the country – does not make the most convincing of cases.

Mary Plazas (Elisabetta) © Richard Hubert Smith
Mary Plazas (Elisabetta)
© Richard Hubert Smith

It doesn’t help that the plot is largely unexciting and is stretched across too much music; Leicester returns to Elizabeth’s court after a successful campaign in Scotland, during which he secretly married Matilde, the daughter of Mary Queen of Scots. He confides in his rival and so-called friend, Norfolk, resulting in a prompt betrayal to Elizabeth who immediately condemns Leicester, Matilde and her brother Enrico to death and, for good measure, banishes Norfolk for being a toady. Norfolk stirs up rebellion, tries to get Leicester on side and fails to assassinate the queen. Unsurprisingly the ‘hero’ trio are pardoned, the villain is condemned and Elizabeth sits smugly on the throne. Within this limited dramatic framework, director James Conway tries valiantly to breathe some life into his production.

John-Colyn Gyeantey (Norfolk), Mary Plazas (Elisabetta) and Luciano Botelho (Leicester) © Richard Hubert Smith
John-Colyn Gyeantey (Norfolk), Mary Plazas (Elisabetta) and Luciano Botelho (Leicester)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Budget concerns and the practicalities of transporting a set across dozens of counties clearly places limitations on how advanced the set can be, but Frankie Bradshaw’s sparse set was effective, albeit slightly underwhelming; the action took place under the shadow of a large throne, symbolising the domination of the crown. Otherwise, we had the head of Mary, Queen of Scots in a natty gold box and a tapestry backdrop. Period costume seemed to end at the waist and there were some distinctly M&S style footwear on display. Conway’s direction veered in effectiveness; there were excellent moments within the central quartet, particularly with Matilde, but the deployment of the chorus was extremely poor, largely lurking in the background (e)motionless, surrounding the stage. There was perhaps a point being made – the walls in court have ears etc – but it was a bland use of a chorus that has some capable actors within it.

Lucy Hall (Mathilde) and Emma Stannard (Enrico) © Richard Hubert Smith
Lucy Hall (Mathilde) and Emma Stannard (Enrico)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The central casting was uneven; the pick of the bunch must be Lucy Hall’s Matilde. Sweet-toned and softly sung, Hall’s moving stage presence gave credibility and dimension to a role that serves more as a plot device than as a character in her own right. Diction was strong and phrasing was eloquent. Hall was well balanced with the harder, more astringent tone of Mary Plazas’ Elizabeth; although the coloratura proved a bit of a stretch with some missed opportunities at the top of the voice, Plazas brought despair, cruelty and paranoia to her interpretation. Luciano Botelho, resplendent in blue cape, was an energetic, masculine Leicester, but vocally struggled outside the comforts of the middle register. John-Colyn Gyeantey’s voice is unsuited to the role of Norfolk, braying the higher register during the first act and strained in the second. The direction also failed to render him anything more than a parody of a ‘baddie’. Rather more interesting was Joseph Doody’s William, secretary to the Queen, who flitted around the stage looking like he wanted personally to decapitate anyone that crossed Elizabeth. Emma Stannard was an earnest Enrico.

Notwithstanding the inert positioning, the chorus sang with spirit and John Andrews drew a balanced and generally fluid performance from the orchestra. For those keen on ticking rarities of their list, this is a performance to see, but more from duty than from pleasure. A healthy dose of Il barbiere di Siviglia is prescribed afterwards.

***11