Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto: Robin Norton-Hale (after Bardari)
Musical Director: Paul McKenzie
Director: Robin Norton-Hale
Designer: Kate Lane
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
OperaUpClose, celebrating its 10th anniversary, began by staging La Boheme in a 60-seat venue above a pub. The company also uses non-theatrical spaces, in the case of the tour of Mary Queen of Scots many of them historic buildings. Even though conventional theatres figure more in the company’s tours these days, the principles of doing opera up close remain, pared down versions of classic operas (OperaUpClose also does new work) which relate intimately to the audience. The Stephen Joseph Theatre, which is becoming a regular port of call, is well suited to this style, with the audience on two sides of The Round feeling on top of the action.
Whether Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, sensibly re-titled Mary Queen of Scots, is as suitable for the OperaUpClose treatment is more debatable – at least at first. Robin Norton-Hale’s version of the text shortens the opera considerably without cutting a named character. Inevitably the chorus disappears and, though the six singers suggest the chorus part effectively in support of some of the later arias, such numbers as the opening chorus of lords and ladies are missed, if only to suggest the majesty of proceedings.
Instead an unfortunately costumed Queen Elizabeth comes onto a stylishly bare stage with two chaps in drab lounge suits. As Elizabeth Philippa Boyle displays throughout a fine dramatic soprano and a fearless approach to the upper register that makes her occasional shrillness readily forgivable, but she doesn’t convince us of the character’s mental agonies over an insoluble problem. The two gentlemen are in fact Lord Cecil (Jan Capinski) and Lord Talbot (Julian Debreuil) trying to convince her, respectively, to execute or release Mary.
There is little movement or sense of involvement, but things liven up when the Earl of Leicester (Cliff Zammit Stevens) appears, though his forthright attack is marred by a tendency to shout. He is an ally of Talbot, but more particularly is in love with Mary – Donizetti and his librettist Bardari took the plot from Schiller who was notoriously cavalier with historical fact!
Once the scene moves to Fortheringhay, where Mary is imprisoned with her loyal attendant Anna (Helen Bailey), matters improve greatly. Flora McIntosh is outstanding as Mary, more than justifying casting a mezzo, the authority of her lower register in no way compromising her thrilling attack on the upper reaches of the part – and she projects a character, noble, wilful, skittish, that we can identify with. Duetting with Mary, Stevens impresses with his warm lyricism as Leicester. Then, immediately before the interval, comes the most famous scene in the opera, Schiller’s invention of a meeting between the rival queens, where the power of the confrontation is matched by Norton-Hale’s inventive direction, with a quaint courtly dance filled with unknown menace.
The second half, building to Mary’s execution via Elizabeth’s decision and Mary’s final prayer, is conducted by dim candle light and consistently engrossing. Both Boyle and McIntosh raise their game and there is good support all round, in particular from Debreuil’s stalwart Talbot.
An orchestral reduction to a trio obviously cuts down the courtly splendour of the music, but Paul McKenzie achieves some arresting effects with the interplay of clarinet and violin around his own indefatigable work on piano.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed