Opera is spectacle: musically, visually, thematically. This production shot itself in the foot: Rupert Frey’s staging took place for the most part in Stygian gloom. Matthew Haskin’s lighting did show some subtlety, but much of the stage was cast in shadow – visually monotonous and a waste of what little floor space there was.
Much of the stage was occupied by a huge black box. Designer Madeleine Boyd had divided it in two: one half the domain of Mary Queen of Scots (Judith Howarth) and the other that of Queen Elisabeth I (Adina Nitescu).
Although the former was technically a prisoner of the latter, the suggestion seemed to be that in the mirror which divided the two women, their characters and situations reflected one another's as queens and as women - alto egos, no less.
Furthermore, the Queens’ mutual love interest Leicester (Bruce Sledge) was a source of emotional confinement: he held Elizabeth’s captive through her affections. Her dilemma of whether to execute her political love rival, another sort of prison of action, gave the mirroring idea some credence.
A continuous element of visual excitement was wondering how the characters would get up and down from the box, as they manoeuvred themselves across the gap, in high heels, kinky boots, leather bustiers, swinging ballet skirts or plaid and at one point, an orange breastplate perfectly moulded to a pair of pendulous breasts.
Donizetti’s magnificent score – including gorgeous brass and woodwind passages - benefited from Graeme Jenkins' assured and spirited conducting. WNO’s magnificent chorus gave thrilling support to some excellent individual soloists – despite being slotted in and around the massive monolith, with hardly room to draw breath.
Bass Alastair Miles (Talbot) gave a beautifully measured, authoritative performance, particularly in the scene where he washes Maria Stuarda’s feet before hearing her confession, and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones was vocally delightful, enhancing through her loyalty and quiet pity, the pathos of her dispossessed Monarch’s journey to the block.
Nitescu’s coarse blustering gave life to the character of Elizabeth, justifying the 'tyrant' label. Howarth gave the most vocally dazzling performance of the evening, which culminated in convincing heroic grandeur as she faced her fate, arms outspread, neck naked to the axe.