“Profanato il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo pi” (“The English throne is profaned, despicable bastard, by your presence”).
So runs perhaps the most arresting line in the bel canto repertoire, the turning point of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, as the titular heroine screams at her rival and is furiously condemned to death.
And it was here that the drama peaked in this performance from the Chelsea Opera Group.
On paper (and in the Cadogan Hall’s entertaining programme note), Maria Stuarda would seem an explosive and proudly controversial slice of theatre. Written in 1834, the opera was banned by the King of Naples before its premiere, and the two original leads literally came to blows in rehearsals, punching, biting and kicking one another, according to a hopefully reliable contemporary journal. But actually, this is no shabby shocker: Donizetti paints the libretto not in piercing primary colours but in subtler shades of black and red, each note contributing to a whole of almost suffocating psychological intensity.
Most memorable are the duets and larger ensembles, each conveying private and public character conflict in the most intimate and convincing of detail. The opera may be famous for one instance of startling verbal vitriol (no doubt gleefully inserted by the seventeen year old librettist Giuseppe Bardari), but this is a glorious exception to a rule in a work that relies more on consistent strength of character conflict than on individual moments of arresting action. Donizetti’s score is colourful and urgent, replete with pulsating rhythms, energetic woodwind writing and florid, character-painting vocal lines.
The Chelsea Opera Group‘s orchestra is built of amateurs, yet the orchestral playing here was of great technical merit. The contrast between strings and woodwind in the Prelude was highly effective and, throughout, I was impressed by the band’s sustained sense of momentum under conductor Tecwyn Evans‘ unfaltering beat. It was easy to forget the occasionally imprecise ensemble entries and smudged scalic passages from the strings; only in Maria’s Quando di luce rosea in Act Two did the ensemble troublingly threaten to collapse. One could perhaps have asked for more pointed articulation and a more lucid instrumental balance at times, but what we were presented with did the job admirably. The chorus similarly could have been more characterful, but they sang with spirit and direction.
At the heart of the work stand the two sparring Queens, Elisabetta and Maria. Majella Cullagh, as the latter, acted the part convincingly and tackled the athletic vocal lines with vigour, perhaps lacking some frailty in the opera’s final moments but never losing her bright, crisp vocal quality. Sally Silver, as Elisabetta was even better: though Silver’s acting could be generalised, her supreme voice was never in question: her opening number Ah! Quando all’ara scorgemi drew murmurs of approval from around the hall. Only her slightly laboured breathing was problematic, though arguably, this contributed to the subtle character portrayal of hysteria.
When I saw Todd Wilander in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux at this year’s Buxton Festival, his voice failed him in the opera’s second half. Here, in the ardent tenor role of Leicester, Wilander pushed so hard in his opening numbers that his throat again began to tire and roughen, causing various disconcerting wobbles in the vocal line and intonation problems in ascending passages. Though this tenor produces a ringing, lyrical sound, there appears to be a problem of pacing over the course of an evening. Wilander did, however, act superbly, fully convincing me of his character’s thoughts and actions, even when his voice threatened to give in. Roderick Earle was a focused, authoritative Talbot, while Philippe Fourcade and Anne Marie Gibbons were both inexplicably well projected in the roles of Cecil and Anna.
Perhaps the performance lacked a final edge of intensity (listen to the live recording from the English National Opera, with Janet Baker and Charles Mackerras, to see how completely arresting the work can be), but this was an articulate and committed delivery of Donizetti’s score that provided a highly enjoyable evening out.