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Prisoner of the Crown

Athenaeum Theatre
09/02/2015 -  & September 5, 8, 12, 19, 2015
Gaetano Donizetti: Maria Stuarda
Elena Xanthoudakis (Mary Queens of Scots), Rosamund Illing (Queen Elizabeth), Henry Choo (Robert, Earl of Leicester), Caroline Vercoe (Anna Kennedy), Phillip Calcagno (Lord George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury), Eddie Muliaumaseali’i (Lord William Cecil)
Melbourne Opera Chorus, Raymond Lawrence (Chorus Master), Melbourne Opera Orchestra, Richard Divall (Conductor)
Suzanne Chaundy (Director), Christina Logan-Bell (Designer), Lucy Birkinshaw (Lighting)

E. Xanthoudakis, R. Illing, C. Vercoe, P. Calcagno (© Robin Hall)

Donizetti’s gloriously melodic score to Maria Stuarda belies the emotional tension and the depth of contempt the protagonists hold for each other. In this new, English language production for Melbourne Opera, Director Suzanne Chaundy has found new insights into the conflict between these royal ladies set against the rigidity imposed by their situations. There is strong emphasis upon the human frailties – love, insult, pride and jealousy but at the same time, there are the implacable restrictions of royalty and the demands of monarchy. The actions of both protagonists are dictated by their royal stations and yet both are torn by deeply felt emotions; neither is able to accept the humanity of the other and both demand commitment to hope, civility and forgiveness. Ms Chaundy has seen deeply into the dramatic tension in this opera and brought it starkly to life.

Under the highly experienced baton of Richard Divall, the small orchestra of Melbourne Opera produced a richly toned rendition. There were times when the balance was coloured by the lower register but by far, there were times when the playing was confident and most suited to the small space of Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre. The overall impression was of a score well researched and well rehearsed due to Maestro Divall’s setting of a secure and assertive pace.

As Queen Elizabeth, Rosamund Illing brought authority and imperiousness to the role. Her accusations of haughty pride against her rival allowed the audience to see clearly that she was blind to those same traits in her own character. Ms Illing’s highly praised career includes many of the bel canto roles and this production gave her opportunity to act as well as give vent to the vocal fireworks, resulting in a nuanced and intensely human characterisation. She gave her voice unbridled flight from her first appearance in Act One, reaching close to hysteria in the accusatory duet of Act Two. This portrait was of a woman unprepared to tolerate the shortcomings of others and unable to see those in herself – a fearsome, yet strangely fearful monarch.

Returning to the company with whom she made her professional debut, soprano Elena Xanthoudakis has established a growing reputation for her performances in Australia and in Europe. Like the representation of Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary is many-faceted. There were moments when we sincerely believed that she was an innocent who had made some unwise decisions and there were others when it was clear that she was a manipulator who failed to predict the dire consequences of her actions. Ms Xanthoudakis has a ravishing voice; easy, assured and simultaneously reserved and fragile, she coloured every phrase, varying and gently embellishing to give a comprehensive and plausible reading of the character.

As Robert Leicester, Henry Choo’s performance was controlled and compelling. His voice is amply suited to this role as it is to many others in this repertoire. His Leicester swung from virile determination to being entirely convinced by Mary, which given the possibility that she willingly manipulated the situation, made his a very human and credible character.

Philip Calgagno sang Talbot and imbued him with a fine combination of statesman and diplomat. He ably contributed to the ensemble passages and gave impressive solos in a consistent performance. The other male principal role of Cecil was given clout and a relentless presence by Eddie Muliaumaseali’i. With a rich basso to match his larger than life stage presence, he determinedly needled Elizabeth to produce the desired execution order. His flaunting of the decree to the grieving Leicester made it clearer still that there are many in this royal court who drive their own agendas, seeking power through the downfall of others.

Mezzo Caroline Vercoe portrayed Anna as a constantly faithful, deeply committed companion. Like the other minor characters, she enabled some excellent ensemble singing with the intense sextet at the conclusion of Act Two standing out.

As with the orchestra, the Melbourne Opera Chorus is few in number but big in sound. Entirely suited to the intimate theatre space of this production, they produced moments of enormous resonance, accurately pitched, rigorously controlled and with flawless diction.

Christine Logan-Bell’s designs for the production reference abstract Tudor roses but are dominated by a skeletal structure of a golden crown over-hanging the entire stage. We are continually reminded that both Elizabeth and Mary are of the same family, both are anointed monarchs and both are as trapped by their high birth as they are by their baser emotions. It is an effective and evocative setting.

There is much to recommend in this production: the return to the Melbourne stage of a bel canto gem twenty years after its last airing here; the opportunity to hear great local musical talent – both emerging and established; a chance to get close to the opera in the intimate setting of the Athenaeum Theatre; and an intelligent, layered interpretation of the plot.

Gregory Pritchard



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