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Sisters under the skin

Arts Theatre
03/16/2005 -  and 18 March 200
Gaetano Donizetti: Mary, Queen of Scots
Anne Mason (Mary), Jennifer Rhys-Davies (Elizabeth), Nicholas Ransley (Leicester), Andrew Rupp (Cecil), Charles Johnston (Talbot), Sarah Jillian Cox (Hannah)

Noel Davies (conductor), James Conway (director)

English Touring Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Maria Stuarda is one Donizetti's "three queens", the operas about British queens beloved of aficionados, but it was comparatively marginal work to the mainstream repertoire even in the bel canto revival of the 1950s. Its title really suits an intense mezzo, like Janet Baker, rather than the passionate sopranos with exquisite fioritura around whom productions of Donizetti were (and often still are) assembled, although Beverly Sills took the role. But it was the edgy, dramatically committed Callas who lead the restoration of Donizetti and Bellini to the mainstream of the repertoire, and the idea that their work is about star sopranos is essentially mistaken. Maria Stuarda is all about measured rage and conflicted sympathy in the context of a historical struggle of religion and national identity: there is a tense musical drama and indeed a gripping story, that of Elizabeth's struggle with love, jealousy and political wisdom, which might have suited Callas although she never took either leading role. Altogether,

English Touring Opera's Mary, Queen of Scots, performed in English translation and on tour after Cambridge, has two distinguished singers as the protagonists, and a set of pretty good ones in the other roles, but no divas or canaries. James Conway's production takes it completely seriously as drama, and even achieves something like the quality of a high-end television play, but the music is always central, with the somewhat monotone orchestra under Noel Davies keeping almost every note in place while maintaining the momentum of the drama. The fixed set, a rudimentary balcony over a passage with moveable screens painted with hunting scenes, allowed the characters to group in their exchanges and observe those of others in a scenic but seamless way. This was particularly well done in the climactic scene where Elizabeth and Mary contrive to meet but their exchange is stage managed by their various partisans so that they barely interact until they have both been pumped up beyond concession and Mary hurls her deprecation. The chorus, always downstage, were a physical force, of support to Mary and violence to Elizabeth.

Anne Mason in the title role had the specified hauteur until her final passion of repentance and dignity in the face of death. Her singing made up in intensity what it occasionally lacked in precision, but her voice was always that of a queen not a singer showing her skill. It was no surprise that she rubbed Jennifer Rhys-Davies' Elizabeth the wrong way. This Elizabeth swayed in every breeze but always regained her balance until the final crisis. Rhys-Davies' voice sounded undistinguished at first, but her singing was, like Mason's, impeccably dramatic, and her characterization was powerful without being remotely camp. In the end, her Elizabeth was almost pathetic.

The source of most of the trouble, Leicester, was sung sexily enough by Nicholas Ransley. It is to the credit of all three singers that he came over as dangerous and glamorous, as much as a result of Mary's and Elizabeth's response to him as of his own performance. Again, a pleasant but undistinguished voice turned out to deliver the drama effectively. Andrew Rupp's Cecil was a blusterous thug, and sang that way most of the time. The production deprived him of the fundamentalist trappings that motivate his wish to have Mary killed, although there was still a touch of Ian Paisley about his delivery. Charles Johnston was a near-saintly Talbot, with a suitably ecclesiastical tone at times. He rather strangely produced a crucifix for Leicester to swear his fidelity to Mary on, as well as the more appropriate one he offers to Mary in the last act. Sarah Jillian Cox was touching and tuneful as Hannah, Mary's devoted maid.

The audience at Cambridge seemed to spend most of the interval telling each other that Mary and Elizabeth never really met, but they were finally deeply appreciative. This production may have more appeal for those who don't know anything about the work than for those who know and love it to the last trill and accacciatura. But there are many more of the former than the latter, and the tour, which also includes Così and a children's Magic Flute, should be a great success.

HE Elsom



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