It goes without saying that every performance of an opera is a feat of skill and talent. Yet there are times when the performance in question transcends the greatness that opera demands, and becomes an exercise in the sublime. Such was the case with Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, in concert at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Starring Joyce DiDonato in the title role, Carmen Giannattasio as her rival, Queen Elisabeth, and Joseph Calleja as the lovelorn Leicester, this performance was a privilege to witness.

Based on Schiller’s play of the same name, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda tells the tale of a fatal, fictional meeting between two queens. Mary, Queen of Scots, fled to England for protection after being forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her son, James. Elizabeth, fearing Mary’s legitimate claim to the throne (the two were cousins) and her Roman Catholicism, immediately ordered her arrest. Mary was Elizabeth’s prisoner for 19 years.

The opera makes no mention of the Tudor court’s convoluted politics, nor the fact that Elizabeth had signed a decree that any attempt to rescue Mary would result in her cousin’s death. A mild allusion is made to the Babington Plot – a monstrously complicated affair that included a variety of noblemen, double agents and coded letters from Mary condoning Elizabeth’s assassination if it was what had to be done to get her out of England – but otherwise, the opera retreats to the same and secure realm of theatrical drama: the love triangle.

The fact that Maria Stuarda reduces two of history’s strongest women to fighting over a man is strange, but it does allow for one thing: a magnificent showdown between the two queens, who never actually met in life. If it takes a love triangle to make such a thing happen, then Schiller and Donizetti were willing to take that step. Indeed, Donizetti’s libretto, written by Giuseppe Bardari, strips down the action of Schiller’s play (which deals with the Babington Plot in whole) to the confrontation between the two queens, and its fallout. And what a confrontation!

Musically taut and yet luscious, Maria Stuarda is one of Donizetti’s most beautiful operas. The cast in concert at the Deutsche Oper gave it their all, and they transcended all expectations. Joyce DiDonato, as Maria, gave an Oscar-worthy performance of the queen, resisting all attempts to strip her of her dignity. She was at once sad, frightened, dignified, proud and, at the end, peaceful. Her singing was otherworldly, passionate in the extreme. From her first recit to her final farewell, DiDonato sang with an exquisite humanity, and acted the part of the put-upon queen in gorgeous creamy tones. Clad in a stunning black gown, as befitting Mary’s status as prisoner, DiDonato could have been wearing sackcloth and ashes and yet would have been nothing but a queen. From the moment that she called Elizabeth a “vile bastard”, she knew there would be no escape for her but the escape of death, and she met it with grace and dignity.

As Elizabeth, Carmen Giannattasio oozed hauteur, her gorgeous soprano voice clear and powerful. Her Elizabeth was unbending and full of hatred for Mary. Giannattasio wore a succession of elegant gowns to portray the monarch’s pride and grandeur; hers was the only spot of colour on the stage. Her demeanour was cold and regal, her singing bell-clear but well-rounded. This was not the Good Queen Bess of English folklore, but the proud heretic of the Catholic European imagination, cutting down the right and true heir to the throne of England in a series of cruel insults. Giannattasio let hate colour her characterization, even when hesitating to sign Mary’s death warrant. That Elizabeth condemned her cousin when she saw her former favourite coming to plead with her, and that she forced him to witness the execution, was monstrous, but Giannattasio’s Elizabeth had no regrets. It was a chilling performance.

And as Leicester, the man who was between them, Joseph Calleja sang with passion and elegance. The character of Leicester walks a dangerous road: in love with Mary and yet a favourite of Elizabeth, he makes no secrets of wishing to free the Scottish queen and reconcile the two women. Historically speaking, to admit to the queen that you were in love with her enemy was suicide. Leicester got off lightly with being forced to witness Mary’s execution. Calleja brought suaveness and humanity to the role, as well as the grief and anger of a man who has failed in his quest. His voice was clarion bright, his technique flawless. Together with DiDonato and Giannattasio, Calleja brought the horror and humanity of the Tudor court to vivid life.

Marko Mimica’s Talbot was a treat; his voice was deep and colorful, both sympathetic and stentorian. Davide Luciano was a convincing Cecil, villainous in his hatred of Mary and his bullying of Elizabeth. Christina Sidak sang the role of Anna with a tragic sweetness, fully expressing the horror and grief of accompanying a friend to the block. The excellent chorus of the Deutsche Oper rounded out the performance, crying shame on England for its execution of an anointed queen. And under it all, the Orchester of the Deutsche Oper, led by Paolo Arrivabeni, swept the story along, never a note out of place.

Maria Stuarda in concert was a heartfelt, tragic, ultimately beautiful drama, filled with excellent singing and heartbreaking emotion. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was a remarkable performance; the audience leaped to its feet and shouted the house down after the last note had died away. DiDonato, Giannattasio and Calleja came out for ovation after ovation.