Tragic tale of warring cousins

Judith Howarth (Mary Stuart) & Adina Nitescu (Queen Elizabeth). Pictures: Robert Workman

Maria Stuarda

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

THE  three operas making up WNO’s hugely successful Tudor Season are all tip-top Donizetti. Verdi, in his 20s, was not yet to be seen. Indeed, pace Rossini, 1830s opera didn’t get much better than Maria Stuarda - events and barbed exchanges leading up to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots - staged in 1835 at La Scala, Milan.

Other composers less known nowadays– Mercadante, Foroni, Pacini (who wrote an opera about England’s Queen Mary), even the short-lived Bellini, were the main rivals. Anna Bolena (the similar sorry saga of a doomed queen) came five years earlier; Roberto Devereux – the wretched tale of Elizabeth’s favourite Earl of Essex, revisited in Britten’s Gloriana - two years later.

Donizetti penned at least six English operas, and the quality of Italy’s librettists of that time shines. Felice Romani, who scripted Ann Boleyn, was Bellini’s star librettist (La Sonnambula). Salvadore Cammarano, librettist of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor as well as Devereux, later adapted Verdi’s Luisa Miller from Schiller and scripted Il Trovatore. Francesco Piave would write a swathe of Verdi hits (Rigoletto, Boccanegra), before Arrigo Boito, with Otello and Falstaff, hoisted Verdi to the operatic rafters.

This is partly why Maria Stuarda is such a stupendous, Shakespeare-quality drama (it too stemmed from Schiller). And WNO’s production by Salzburg-born Rudolf Frey, not hitherto known to me but a collaborator with Robert Carsen, Luc Bondy and to me one of the great directors and character baritones of our age, Martin Kušej, with its revolvable rectangular centreset by the much-travelled Madeleine Boyd (suggesting not just Mary but Elizabeth is caged by duty and circumstance) is not just right up there with the best companies in Europe – it sets the pace for them.

The loyal companion, Anna Kennedy, sung by Rebecca Afonwy-Jones

All hinges on the blistering set-to between the two Queens, one doomed to die childless, trapped by duty and the mixture of the sinister and commonsense that is her chief advisor, the elder Cecil (wonderfully cynical and seedy, a kind of aristocrat Uriah Heep, sneeringly sung by Gary Griffiths who emerges from the woodwork as the impeccable chief manipulator of the Third Act); and the other, who will perish by the axe (skilfully engineered here: the entire scaffold swings 180 degrees to reveal Elizabeth - the stupendous Romanian soprano Adina Nitescu - on tenterhooks, but not triumphant, at the moment the axe falls) - but will mother an entire mixed-fortune English (indeed British) dynasty, the Stuarts.

It’s this kind of torn-ness, tension and unpredictability that makes Giuseppe Bardari’s Schiller-libretto so superb. But if Nitescu’s strength and stage presence – even in beehived ginger wig she is quite short – carried the opera (except surely her first entry, which looked cramped and weak), it was the presence of talents like the snakelike Gary Griffiths and blusteringly passionate American Bruce Sledge in the tenor love role of Leicester (who’s supposed to adore Elizabeth but has fallen for Mary), and above all the magnificent Alastair Miles as Talbot of Shrewbury, the beleaguered Marcher Lord who endeavours unsuccessfully to prevent the squawking cousins’ deadly tiff and save Mary, who seems determined not to save herself, which made this opera so powerful.

There are duets and trios and a quintet amid all this: every set-piece and ensemble was quite wonderful. And then there was Judith Howarth. She is in a way WNO’s diva, as Claire Rutter was ENO’s; but what a quality, wide-ranging, convincing diva she is. Here Mary might have been more troubled, more pessimistic, more anxious, more diffident – that is left to her beautifully tender young amanuensis, Anna Kennedy (Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, touching in the extreme), who stays with Mary till the big chop.

Howarth’s Mary proves every inch a Queen: implacably proud, no subsidiary to the ‘Royal bastard’ Elizabeth, but Henry VII’s legal offspring, Henry VIII’s sister’s daughter, with a royal line as long as the Plantagenets, and the potent ally of France. Howarth’s major arias, fabulously varied in dynamic, are without exception stunning, her duetting (with Talbot, and Leicester) as sensationally well-staged as well-sung.

What a top-notch offering from David Pountney’s riveting company.

WNO’s Tudor Season continues, along with Puccini’s Tosca, at Venue Cymru, Llandudno, Tues 19 to Sat 23 Nov: 01492 872000 www.wno.org.uk 14-11-13

Roderic Dunnett  

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