Maria Stuarda in Zurich

Maria Stuarda tells the story of the relationship between two great regal characters and Donizetti’s opera revolves around the confrontation of two great sopranos, with the Earl of Leicester little more than a foil for each of them. Elizabeth is ostensibly powerful, at times vituperative, but is vulnerable in terms of her love for Leicester and consequently jealous when he is perceived to direct his affection elsewhere. Mary’s strength lies in her pride, her sincerity and her religious faith. Their (imagined) meeting, extraordinary both dramatically and musically, is at the centre of the piece, the earlier scenes leading up to it, the later working through the consequences.

Such is the linear nature of the plot and the straightforwardness of its themes that the drama speaks for itself and, for the purposes of presentation, requires little or no interpretation, nor attention to any political or psychological subtext. When the Zurich Opera engages two leading dramatic sopranos, Diana Damrau and Serena Farnocchia, what – one might ask – is there left for the stage director to do, but move them around the stage effectively and create appropriately meaningful tableaux? David Alden certainly revealed his skills in these respects; for example there was an aesthetically pleasing opening to the proceedings as, during the prelude, the two queens circled round each other on an empty stage. But presumably he also felt that certain “special” effects were necessary or his reputation as an innovator might suffer. So, we had Elizabeth’s followers waving little English flags, herself arriving for the confrontation with Mary on a gigantic plastic horse which she had to mount by means of an extended staircase and, in the lead-up to Mary’s execution, a giant skeleton descending from the flies. None of the effects added anything of value to the production.

Happily, for the most part, we could concentrate on the singers and their considerable gifts of expression. In the title role, Damrau justified all the plaudits she has won with a truly exceptional performance. In moments of passion she produced some exciting high notes; this to be contrasted with the silvery, delicate pianissimi as, approaching death, she revealed her inner faith. Throughout, her masterly accentuation of phrasing in the vocal line enhanced the dramatic communication of her plight. Farnocchia was also marvellous as Elisabeth. She attacked the high-lying passages with pure, clean tone, adding colour and hardness when required to achieve venom. Then she could scale down the voice to a whiter sound to reflect fragility. Pavel Breslik’s bright, seductive tenor served well the part of Leicester and dramatically he convincingly ingratiated himself with both of the protagonists, without totally disguising his political motivations. There were good supporting performances from Nicolas Testé as a warm and sympathetic Talbot and Andrzej Filonczyk as a frighteningly aggressive Cecil. As ever, Enqrique Mazzola in the pit provided an assured accompaniment.