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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 4, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 10
Rival queens battle it out in Donizetti's Mary Stuart
Arts & Entertainment
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Rival queens battle it out in Donizetti's Mary Stuart

by Alice Bloch - SGN A&E Writer

SEATTLE OPERA
MARY STUART
MUSIC BY GAETANO DONIZETTI
LIBRETTO BY GIIUSEPPE BARDARI
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
February 27 & 28 (thru March 12)


In real life, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart never met, and Elizabeth's decision to execute her cousin was strictly political. But in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, based on Friedrich Schiller's play Mary Stuart, the two queens are rivals not only for the English throne but also for the love of a tenor, and their fiery confrontation is the vocal and theatrical high point of the opera.

The splendid Seattle Opera production directed by Kevin Newbury portrays Elizabeth and Mary as childhood friends separated and made enemies by society. Which woman's claim to the throne was seen as valid depended on religious affiliation, and Donizetti and his Italian audience clearly favored the Catholic Mary. Newbury's interpretation, however, makes a case for both women and presents the American audience with a more complex picture of two strong-willed rulers beset by personal and political pressures.

This inventively staged production focuses the audience's attention on power imbalances and shifts, injecting suspense and excitement into the well-known story. The simple, modern sets designed by Neil Patel feature two staircases, one for each queen, moved about the stage by four hunky men. From the top of her staircase, Elizabeth enters the stage like a rock star, looms over her courtiers and eavesdrops on their conversations, and commands the crowd. Then from behind her, Mary Stuart enters on an even taller staircase, which later becomes her prison cell and finally, the scaffold for her execution.

Sumptuous period costumes designed by Seattle native Jessica Jahn also emphasize each character's station in society. Elizabeth's hoop skirts become stiffer and more voluminous in each scene, dwarfing the other characters' costumes, until in the final scene the skirt of her 'fairy queen' gown is so huge that she can barely walk and becomes a pathetic figure.

Lighting designer D. M. Wood makes effective use of shadows to magnify selected characters' presence onstage and to increase the apparent size of the crowd represented by the chorus.

On opening night, the principal singers, chorus, and orchestra combined their forces to create a thrilling, memorable performance. Seattle audiences already know and love Mary Elizabeth Williams, a former Young Artist who has since risen to the challenge of notoriously difficult roles, including Abigaille in Verdi's Nabucco earlier in this season. As Elizabeth in Mary Stuart, she fulfilled every expectation with her dazzling vocal technique and dramatic ferocity.

As Mary Stuart, Joyce El-Khoury deployed a lighter, more supple voice, with lovely floated high notes. To her great credit, she held her own in the confrontation scene with Williams; a lesser soprano would have been wiped off the stage by Williams's power and intensity. Also to El-Khoury's credit: she substituted for the ill Serena Farnocchia on opening night, and then sang the extremely demanding role of Mary Stuart again the next afternoon. What a trouper!

Tenor John Tessier was superb in the thankless role of Leicester, the love object of both queens. The sweetness of Tessier's voice made the character's stupidity seem the forgivable result of his innocence.

As Mary Stuart's trusted friend Talbot, baritone Weston Hurt shone in both performances, tempering his strong voice to blend into the ensemble numbers. Michael Todd Simpson, another former Young Artist, did a fine job as Cecil, Elizabeth's 'cut-off-her-head' counselor.

In the alternate cast on Sunday, Keri Alkema was adequate but not wonderful as Elizabeth. She showed some breath control problems in Act I, but her singing improved as the opera went on. Andrew Owen as Leicester had a harsh edge to his voice, which was particularly unpleasant in the ensembles.

The always reliable Seattle Opera chorus was simply terrific, particularly in the moving prayer scene in Act II, when the chorus joined El-Khoury to sing with unforgettable beauty.

Conductor Carlo Montanaro also has an illustrious history at Seattle Opera. He excelled in this production, ramping up orchestral tension to support the drama and keeping chorus, soloists, and musicians together throughout. The orchestra, composed of members of Seattle Symphony, couldn't have been better. Special praise is due the woodwind and brass soloists, as well as Michael Crusoe on timpani and percussion. Crusoe's ominous drum rolls at the beginning of the overture told the audience all we needed to know about what the rest of this fascinating opera had in store.

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Rival queens battle it out in Donizetti's Mary Stuart
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Comedy's Lovable Queen of Mean, Lisa Lampanelli returns to the Moore Theatre Saturday, March 12
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Inspiring Eddie heroically takes flight
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