Superb New Zealand premiere of Donizetti masterpiece in the Catholic Cathedral

Opera in a Days Bay Garden – Opera in the Basilica

Donizetti: Maria Stuarda

Lisa Harper-Brown (Elizabeth I); Paul Whelan (Talbot); Benjamin Fifita Makisi (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester); Matt Landreth (Lord Cecil); Clarissa Dunn (Anna Kennedy); Rhona Fraser (Mary, Queen of Scots)
Producer: Rhona Fraser; Michael Vinten (conductor); Sara  Brodie (director)
Chapman Tripp NBR New Zealand Opera Chorus; orchestra

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Friday, 10 August 2012, 6.00pm

This was New Zealand’s first performance of Donizetti’s great opera, one of seven (I’m open to correction) that he wrote based on English and Scottish history and stories.  This one had a turbulent early history of censorship and numerous revisions because of its theme of battling royals and the execution of a crowned monarch.

Days Bay Opera was not in a garden this time, but appropriately in a Catholic church bearing the inscription ‘Sub Maria Nomine’.  It was virtually full of people; they witnessed an absolute triumph!  Days Bay Opera, principally the work of Rhona Fraser, producer and soprano soloist), gave us a performance of a very high standard and fully professional in all its elements, while conductor Michael Vinten and director Sara Brodie allowed their experience and their imaginations to invest Donizetti’s great opera with musical and acting delights.  It is worth noting that the sponsor of this enterprise was none other than Jeremy Commons, world expert on the operas of Donizetti.

In 1992 I attended this opera performed by Australian Opera in the Sydney Opera House.  It was notable that not only was the essay in the lavish printed programme written by Jeremy Commons, but three of the six principals (though not Elizabeth or Mary) were New Zealanders: Rodney Macann as Talbot, Anson Austin as Leicester (who was indisposed the night I attended) and Heather Begg as Anna.  A brief quotation from the essay sets the scene: “A beautiful and rewarding opera in itself – a fascinating study of two queens held apart by politics – a sensitive and moving representation of the final hours of one of the most unfortunate figures in British history – an intriguing window upon the theatrical world of its day – Maria Stuarda is all of these things.”

This choice constituted a departure for Days Bay Opera, whose previous productions have been of a lighter cast: The Marriage of Figaro, Journey to Rheims, and Alcina (which is not as light as the other two, but has a happy ending).

The change to an indoor venue in winter from a beautiful garden and watery view in summer is also major.  Sara Brodie used the building to great effect, its architectural features enhanced by lovely lighting, with action taking place in various parts, although predominantly at the sanctuary end, where the small orchestra was placed.  Action further back could not readily be seen by those near to the front; however, the acoustics are so fine that the sound could be heard anywhere.  The action in the central aisle and side aisles enabled other parts of the audience to see and hear well at different times.  The use made of the many points of entry into the church was imaginative; the coup de grace (coup de l’église?) was at the end, when Mary and her retinue walked the length of the nave and out the west door (to her execution).

There were no weak links in this production; the cast was very thoroughly rehearsed, knew their words well, and projected them more than adequately. I noticed that the soloists seldom looked at the conductor, yet they were spot on in entries and timing.  The English version used was that of Amanda Holden, who created it for English National Opera in 1998.  It was described by the Sunday Telegraph as ‘Amanda Holden’s racy new translation’.

The orchestra comprised eight players, plus a pair of trumpets that appear only in one short scene, ‘off-stage’ (out the side door, in fact), when Elizabeth arrives to meet Mary.  Vinten’s reduction of the score was masterly, with sufficient of both volume and content to render the music with enough variety of timbre and dynamics.  The five strings, flute, clarinet and piano all worked hard and played extremely well, with many wonderful moments.  Early on, I especially noticed beautiful playing from the clarinet.  The piano never intruded, but gave a firm base for the other players.  Later in the first Act there was winsome flute playing accompanying Mary and Anna.  A lovely prelude preceded Act II (Act III in most 20th century performances), full of foreboding and anticipation.

Costuming a period production can be an expensive business.  The solution here was to dress the characters mainly in modern dress, including lounge suits and ties for the men (although Elizabeth’s queenly robe, and her hunting costume deviated from the modern), apart from Mary Queen of Scots and her attendant Anna, who wore period costume.  Director Sara Brodie explained to me in the interval (which was deliciously lubricated with mulled wine) that this was to convey the idea that Mary and her court were in a ‘time-lock’, while the court of Elizabeth had moved on in time.

The cast was uniformly good. What a coup to have Paul Whelan as Talbot – a bass-baritone who sings in opera houses around the world!  While he was the principal singer in that register, he was not the leading soloist.

Lisa Harper-Brown played Queen Elizabeth I with great dignity and hauteur, her vocal coloration and facial expression always apt for the moment.  Her voice was rich and expressive.  Donizetti took her to both the top and the bottom of her range in quick time, but this seemed to present no problem.

In the first Act, she had a delightful lilting solo with pizzicato accompaniment.  Her Scene Two solo in the presence of Mary was delivered with a sense of foreboding, as Mary and Talbot intoned their reactions against the floating notes of Elizabeth; Anna joined in to make a gorgeous ensemble.  There was a slight lack of co-ordination, but considering the distance the singers were from each other, ensemble was very good, featuring masterly, controlled tone, while Mary’s soliloquy that followed was dramatic and agitated.

Ben Makisi sang Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, with passion and to great dramatic effect.  His voice had full, ringing tones, producing (as always) lovely soft top notes; in the case of his duet with Elizabeth, these were unaccompanied.  The men’s duet that followed was full of drama, as was Elizabeth’s anger with Leicester. Makisi, of all the performers, managed to get a look in his eye that expressed his emotions and his objections to Elizabeth’s wishes (since his greater affection was for Mary).

Rhona Fraser’s singing as Mary Queen of Scots was magnificent.  I have heard her sing in each of the operas.  Here, her role was much larger, more dramatic and more difficult than those she had previously essayed, and she rose to the occasion superbly.  Her intonation was perfect, her runs thrilling, and her acting thoroughly in keeping with the role, as indeed was the acting of all the cast.  Her tirade against Elizabeth in the second Scene of Act I incorporated coloratura runs, +and was impressive, the voice ringing out strongly, but with no hint of forcing.  Again at the end of Act II there were superb coloratura passages, while Fraser’s low notes were dramatic and mellow, helping to bring the audience into the passion and drama.

The following duet between Leicester and Mary, in waltz time, revealed a wonderful bloom to Fraser’s voice, and how splendidly both singers used their resonators.

At the beginning of Act II there was a stunning duet between Makisi and Whelan, as they discuss plots against Elizabeth, their double lives, of service to Elizabeth, but their love for Mary, and in Talbot’s case, the fact that he was a clandestine Catholic. Whelan was at his best in the scene with Mary, his voice fully resonant in the sanctuary of the church.  Here, Mary had yet more beautiful period clothing.  Her solo with chorus, Talbot and Anna was mellifluous, enhanced by the acoustic.

Mary’s prayer was exquisitely sung, and Fraser’s facial expression conveyed tragic feeling.  The lighting contrasted the light and space of Elizabeth’s court of the first scene with the confined, darker castle at Fotheringay where Mary was imprisoned.  Presumably for this reason also, there was less movement in those scenes.

In the final scene, leading to the execution, the crew erected barriers to keep back the crowd.  The chorus began here rather weakly, but improved as they went on, though facial expressions were mostly too dead-pan.  Their placards read “Shame on England”, “We love you Mary” and other 21st century phrases; very telling.  Makisi was very strong here, and the chorus became more involved.

Clarissa Dunn was effective as Anna, Mary’s companion.  Her acting as the calm, comforting, dutiful servant was just right; her relatively small amount of singing revealed a very attractive voice, and good enunciation.  She acquitted herself well in the ensemble in the first Act with Mary and the soldiers, and again in the final scene.

The chorus was first heard behind the audience, in the gallery, making a great impact and their work, vocally, was consistently good.  Paul Whelan also first sang from behind where I was seated; he produced a magnificent sound, powerful and intense and projecting the words strongly. The brass and off-stage chorus were sonorously splendid as they announced Elizabeth’s arrival at Fotheringay Castle to visit Mary (historically, this never happened).

This opera features many duets and ensembles.  Early on, Elizabeth and Leicester  sing a tender duet that soon turns to fire; this was splendidly done – but so were all the ensembles.

Some aspects of the production were less convincing than others.  Both Elizabeth and Mary used the pulpit on occasion; the first time, it was Elizabeth, holding a dog, which she hands to Cecil (Matt Landreth, a cynical courtier who sang expressively, though with sometimes insufficient volume though at others, strongly) while she sings her first aria; this was excellent.  But the photographers doing a photo-shoot of Elizabeth in the first scene (complete with make-up brush) was perhaps a little OTT, especially the distracting flashes.  Elsewhere in the production had Elizabeth using a laptop, Cecil using a cellphone, but these features were not overdone.

The only slightly negative note was the appearance of the chorus.  Most had not memorised their music, which was perhaps understandable, but their scores were held at sundry angles, and in the last scene some of the chorus held protest placards as well, which added to the problem. More uniform handling of the scores would have improved the look. Nevertheless, the chorus shone vocally.

Here we had a team of individuals performing impeccably, both dramatically and vocally, conveying expertly Donizetti’s music and drama at his melodic, harmonic and rhythmic best.  Congratulations to all concerned with this stunning production – not forgetting the effective lighting.  Particular praise must go to the two female leads, who were outstanding, and to Rhona Fraser for producing a performance of such quality, with tension, drama and momentum maintained throughout the performance, with no dead spots.

The second and final performance is on Saturday, 18 August at 8pm.  Go if you possibly can!



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