Preview: Maria Stuarda

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Published: 19th August, 2015

In recent times Victoria has certainly led the way in presenting some rarely seen operatic works. Fully staged productions of Weber’s Der Freischutz (Melbourne Opera) and Wagner’s Der Fliegender Hollaender (Victorian Opera) have recently been followed by sold out concert performances of Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartok (Monash Academy Orchestra) and Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece I Puritani. 2015 is far from over however, and opera lovers still have more opportunity to see the unusual. Lyric Opera of Melbourne will shortly be presenting G.W.L Marshall-Hall’s Stella and, continuing to give audiences the chance to see local singers alongside international stars this season, is Melbourne Opera’s ambitious presentation of another bel canto work, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda.

Based on the Schiller play and largely neglected since its premiere in Milan in 1835 until the middle of last century, the work is unusual both in its volatile, contentious subject matter and the fact that it contains two equally demanding soprano roles: Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth 1, both requiring singing of the highest technical and lyrical calibre.

In fact the opera is mainly focused on an imaginary scenario where the two queens meet, a classic “what if” according to director Suzanne Chaundy. “Although they were frequent correspondents they actually never met and what is gripping about Mary Stuart,” she says, “is the psychological examination of two powerful women who have chosen to live their lives in entirely different ways. Both queens are vying for the same man, Robert of Leicester, and both are imprisoned in different ways; Elizabeth by her decision to rule and not marry and Mary in the literal sense is imprisoned by Elizabeth and her impulsive nature.”

Alongside an impressive local supporting cast, Elena Xanthoudakis returns from Europe to take on the role of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Melbourne-based soprano Rosamund Illing (pictured) will be singing the role of Elizabeth 1. An Australian operatic star of considerable international reputation, Ms Illing has obviously given an impressive amount of thought as to how she will return to the Australian stage and present one of the greatest women in history.

“I always need to look internally to find a bit of myself in my characters. Drama, mannerisms and stylistic elements are important, as Tudor times were very different to modern times. There was definite court etiquette; morals were lax. One needs to be careful to slow down gestures that may otherwise look too contemporary and learn how to act like a Queen who actually ruled by divine right and was the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty.”

Citing her portrayals of Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), Vitellia (La Clemenza di Tito and Elettra (Idomeneo) Ms Illing is no stranger to what she describes as “seriously dysfunctional on stage characters. Mozart ladies always require a particular precision of technique which I started to cultivate and develop back in my days at Glyndebourne.” She continues by saying that, like these Mozart characters, she has particularly enjoyed the challenge of coming to grips with the vocal and technical complexities of Elizabeth, but she is also keen to impress that drama must always be attached to the music.

“Elizabeth is at times unrestrained, jealous, willful and easily overwrought. The older Queen was quite probably irritated and intimidated by the beauty of Mary and the way she had with men. This wonderful opera with really beautiful music requires both leading ladies to display great personal charisma.”

She continues by pointing out that even learning to move in heavy and elaborate costumes must be well considered. Looking to some of the greatest actresses of our time for recent inspiration Ms Illing ponders that a role such as this one is in fact no small task.

Director Suzanne Chaundy is in agreement. In keeping with the grandeur of the times the bare bones of an enormous crown will form the architecture of the space on stage, breaking down to create different settings and providing what she describes as a “potent visual metaphor of power and prison. The stage design is an abstraction of the symbols of Tudor rule,” she says. “The Tudor rose, the orb, the crown.”

Conducted by Maestro Richard Divall and joined by Henry Choo as Robert, Earl of Leicester, Caroline Vercoe as Anna, Mary’s companion, Phillip Calcagno as Lord Cecil and Eddie Muliaumaseali’i as Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, this production continues Melbourne Opera’s commitment to great operatic masterpieces.

I am told that Richard Bonynge, who was responsible for the reintroduction of bel canto repertoire into Australia, has apparently sent an email wishing the entire cast well in this ambitious undertaking.

The Classic Melbourne team joins him in these sentiments.

Maria Stuarda can be seen on September 2, 5, 8, and 12 (matinee) at The Athenaeum Theatre, and on September 19 at Monash University’s Alexander Theatre.

 The performances will be presented in English.