Judith Howarth (Mary) and Brenda Harris (Elizabeth), star as the dueling divas in "Mary Stuart."
Minnesota Opera presents "Mary Stuart" through February 6 at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts. It revolves around Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, as they battle for the English throne. Thinking about going? Below are excerpts from three different reviews of the first performances; click on the links to read the full reviews.
Start a conversation about Gaetano Donizetti's 1834 "Mary Stuart," which opened Saturday at the Ordway Center in a grandly sung production by the Minnesota Opera, and chances are you'll soon be talking about the blood-soaked patch of English history on which the work draws. Based on a play by Friedrich von Schiller, the opera seems overshadowed by its source materials, which librettist Giuseppe Bardari, a green 17-year-old, couldn't quite make his own. The result is a problematic hybrid -- "Masterpiece Theater" meets high-flying coloratura -- whose power stems more from the clash of its two queenly sopranos than from its theatrical (or musical) cogency.
That power peaks in the famous confrontation scene, invented by Schiller, which pits Elizabeth I against her cousin, Mary Stuart. The Earl of Leicester, loved by both women, has hatched a plan to free Mary, whom Elizabeth, a political rival, has long held captive. But Leicester's scheme goes horribly wrong, and with an imprudent outburst -- "Vile bastard," the opera's signature moment -- Mary seals her doom. One can imagine this encounter being played with greater melodramatic fervor than it was on Saturday, but not with more chilling elocution. (Alas, this pivotal scene comes rather early -- at the end of Act 1 in the company's two-act version of the score -- and leaves composer and librettist struggling to sustain dramatic tension thereafter.)
In Brenda Harris (Elizabeth) and Judith Howarth (Mary), Minnesota Opera has the two differentiated divas Donizetti demands. No one will confuse them. Harris, deservedly a company favorite, is an aging spitfire, regal even in her indecision -- she holds all the cards, and knows it. Her voice has an icy edge; her coloratura is a weapon. Howarth, though capable of a spine-awakening shriek, characteristically sings with melting lyricism. Her coloratura is laced with tenderness; she makes Mary's dubious transformation from charmer to martyr seem plausible. She's particularly affecting in her prayer, as is the splendid chorus (which is effectively deployed throughout this production).
Call it a soprano smackdown.
While several operas swirl around the conflict between two women, Gaetano Donizetti's "Mary Stuart" might top them all in passionate fury. Aida vs. Amneris? Amateurs. What Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, are fighting over has such a combustible combination of ingredients -- power, religion and love -- that an explosion seems inevitable.
When the lid blows off the relationship between its two central characters in the Minnesota Opera's "Mary Stuart," it's one of the most thrilling scenes the company has created in recent memory. It may be the point at which this production reaches its apogee, but it soars from beginning to end, propelled by spectacular singing and stagecraft, richly textured characterizations and expert interpretation of Donizetti's music.
Legend has it that the sopranos in this opera's original 1835 production came to blows and hair pulling during a rehearsal. You won't find that here, but the tension between the two queens fills the air inside the Ordway. The story takes place after Mary has sought refuge in England, only to find that religious differences (Catholic vs. Anglican) and disputes over bloodlines have convinced some within the Elizabethan court that she's too dangerous to live.
While some productions portray Elizabeth as this story's venomous villain, Harris attracts the audience's sympathy for a jealous, indecisive monarch. Brenda Harris reprises the role of Elizabeth that she so vividly inhabited in last season's "Roberto Devereux," but this performance is even more impressive. But Judith Howarth matches her aria for aria as Mary, seizing the heroine's mantle with a transfixing stage presence and silky-soft delivery. Both Harris and Howarth make these larger-than-life characters compellingly human-sized, each a flawed and fascinating figure.
Even if you don't know much about classical music, you can appreciate opera because it features situations everyone can relate to. For example, Gaetano Donizetti's Mary Stuart: you know you need to sign your cousin's death warrant because she was party to treasonous plots against you, and furthermore has been sending mash notes from her prison cell to your lover, who was once hers. But you keep putting it off and putting it off because you're busy being queen and, after all, she is your cousin (albeit once removed). I mean, who hasn't been there?
...It's a strong production, but you have to know what you're getting into. There's little in the way of comic antics or grand battles here: you've pretty much got two chagrined women trading powerful arias. Both divas are up to the task, though as with Devereux, Harris has the more thankless role and is outshone by her costar--then Tamara Klivadenko, now the precise and empathetic Howarth. In the crucial role of Leicester, Sledge sings well but does a terrible job as an actor: when he's shown the death warrant of the woman he loves, he gives Elizabeth a look like she's just asked him to wash the castle's windows.
Did you make it the Minnesota Opera's production of "Mary Stuart?" If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.