Opera Up Close: Maria Stuarda – Sutton House, London

Librettist and Director: Robin Norton-Hale after Bardari’

Orchestrator and Musical Director: Paul McKenzie

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

With a cast of just six singers and three musicians, Opera Up Close have stayed true to form and produced a muscular and engaging performance.

Though it’s in concert style – music and singing with the sets, costumes and movement removed – it has gripping and dramatic moments (there’s a lot to be said for a well-timed eyebrow raise). Queen Elizabeth the First has reached the moment where she needs to decide what to do with her cousin Mary (Queen of Scots). Driven by love and insecurity she agrees to meet Mary to allow her to plead for relief. Time is not mentioned, but the real Mary would have been imprisoned for around 20 years at this point. The story plays the two women off each other, leaving debate as to whether they’re pawns in a bigger game by the men of court, or properly in control of their own fates.

With courtiers pressing for clemency, and some for swift execution, there’s a tense depth to the narrative. While not a huge amount happens (asking for a meeting, a meeting, debate about executing her and making a decision) there’s a real examination of a well-drawn character in Queen Elizabeth, and a pleasing hint at what may have happened emotionally at this tough political time – though the plot cannot be recommended for strict historical accuracy.

The translation and interpretation of Guisseppe Bardari’s original libretto by Norton-Hale produces a robust and sensual woman in Elizabeth, not the popular “Virgin Queen” figure a modern view of her image would suggest to a general audience. She has jealousies, loves and, frankly, pettiness. Philippa Boyle interprets this character powerfully – an excellent voice and tone. Her counterpart, Flor McIntosh as Mary is altogether more playful at the start, before turning in true emotion as the cracked and condemned queen who is gracious in accepting her fate. Of the men, Joseph Doody as the Earl of Leicester, a true supporter of Mary, is a highlight with a ringing baritone cuts above the clamour.

Laying the blame at composer Donezetti’s door, there are certainly times when the interweaving musical lines jumble on top of each other making comprehension nigh on impossible, though the harmonies are naturally excellent. For this, it’s difficult to cut through some of the sensitive high points of the performance – a shame as this does break the spell somewhat.

The opera is set to come back as a fully staged version in early 2019 – adding movement, costume and set will help to bring out the best elements of this character-driven piece. Building from such a strong musical base, it’s sure to be one to mark the calendar for.

Runs until 6 October September in different locations | Image: Contributed

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Muscular & Engaging

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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One Comment

  1. Operas without full Orchestras, Chorus, Sets and Costumes do not work. If they can’t afford to do this as the composer intended they should not be doing it at all. To present this opera without the full sound picture is doing no service to Donizetti and the opera going public are being short changed. Whoever wrote this review has little understanding of Donizetti and to have the audacity to blame him for any shortcomings is absolutely ridiculous..

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