CONDUCTOR: Maurizio Benini

CAST: Joyce DiDonato, Elza van den Heever, Matthew Polenzani, Joshua Hopkins,

Matthew Rose, Maria Zifchak

SET & COSTUME DESIGNS: John Macfarlane

LIGHTING: Jennifer Tipton


RUNNING TIME: 193 minutes

RATING: ****

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart), an opera in two acts about the rivalry between two killer queens who were cousins, is set historically within the Tudor era.

We have Elizabeth I, a Protestant, also known as the “virgin queen”, and Mary, Queen of Scots, who was Catholic, was married three times and apparently murdered one of her husbands.

Adding to this deeply layered conflict was the fact that some viewed Elizabeth to be illegitimate, while others saw Mary as the right- ful heir to the throne. The latter fled from Scotland after the rebellion of the nobles and sought asylum in England where Elizabeth had her imprisoned for a number of years.

In the opening scene of Act I, set in the English court, it transpires that Elizabeth is in love with the Earl of Leicester, but fears that he also harbours feelings for Mary. Added disagreement. The Earl initiates a secret meeting with Talbot, Mary’s custodian, to seek her release and, after some hitches, convinces Elizabeth to be part of a hunt near Fortheringgay where Mary is imprisoned. Leicester advises Mary on many levels on how to approach her nemesis.

This confrontation never happened, but it gave such a dramatic thrust to the events in Friedrich Schiller’s original play, that it was decided to keep it intact in Guiseppe Bardari’s libretto.

From here the drama becomes unstoppable, but Donizetti paces Act II so perfectly that the inner feelings of the characters could be given their full due.

This Maria Stuarda heralded the Metropolitan Opera debut of the South African soprano Elza van den Heever (pictured) in the role of Elizabeth. It is not only stunning, she is also marvellously endowed both in voice and expressiveness, while suggesting more than enough of the majesty, fascination, impulsiveness and hatchet-features of an authentic Gloriana.

Exhilaration was already fully established in her opening aria, meditatively hopeful, yet a suggestion of anxiety under- neath it all. She demonstrated how perfectly it fits the lyric-cantabile form. However, she is as technically able to deal with florid passages while retaining an impassioned level of intensity and purity of tone.

Dramatically she establishes her character well. Just look out for the way she taunts her rival with her hunting whip!

Joyce DiDonato is both subtle and at times overpowering in her portrayal of the title role.

Her voice is ideal to bring out the coloratura beauty and excitement. But at the end it is not really her technical prowess as a singer that stays in the mind, but rather the emotionally wide spectrum in which she characterises the unhappy queen. Her near-final “Deh! Tu di un umile preghiera”, a prayer, was heart-rending. Her Mary is in every nuance touchingly sympathetic.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani produces a rather light-voiced Leicester. He oozes an attractive style and brings the often ineffective character to life rather more successfully than most.

The smaller roles are excellently filled and the chorus sings with mellowed intensity. Maestro Maurizio Benini deserves his reputation as a fine conductor of bel canto era repertoire.

David McVicar’s direction is slightly conventional as a whole, but it is obvious he worked very closely with the main protagonists.

• Screening at all Cinema Nouveau and selected Ster-Kinekor theatres.