Maria Stuarda, Royal Opera House, London – review

In the run-up to the vote on Scottish independence there is plenty of scope for topical allusions in the theatre. When the curtain goes up on this new production of Donizetti’s opera to show a crowd in modern dress baying for the release of their beloved Mary Stuart, it looks as if we may be in for an updated staging with a sharp satirical edge.

No such luck. The joint directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, fail to make any point worth noting from their idea of juxtaposing the historical English and Scottish queens in 16th-century costume against a 21st-century background. Maria Stuarda needs little more than a production that tells its story clearly, but they get in a tangle by setting most of it in a modern prison – what a pathetic idea to show Elizabeth I sitting down to a champagne supper in front of the cells – and the result, besides looking awful, makes no sense. This drab, empty production is as feeble as anything that has graced the Royal Opera House stage for many a year.

Ah, people will say, but early 19th-century Italian opera is all about the singing. And so, thank heavens, it is here. Joyce DiDonato is taking the role of Mary Stuart around many of the world’s top opera houses and her wonderfully sung portrayal is worth travelling a long way to catch. The dramatic music is sung with fire and impetuosity; the coloratura sparkles with virtuoso clarity; and, as Mary contemplates execution, she sings with a voice touched with a very personal emotional tremulousness, and so iridescent with subtle colours, that no other singer today could surely come close to her. DiDonato simply gets better and better.

Carmen Giannattasio may not have the depth of vocal colour that makes DiDonato so special, but her Elizabeth I bristles with cutting tone and a scalding use of the Italian text. Ismael Jordi is an ardent Leicester, even better when he softens the brightness of his tenor, and Matthew Rose a grandly sung Talbot. Bertrand de Billy makes an ideally nimble but responsive conductor. By the end of the evening the only regret is that the wrong person is getting executed. Put the heads of Leiser and Caurier on the block at the next performance and the audience will have something extra to cheer about.

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