Maria Stuarda, Welsh National Opera

Rebecca Franks enjoys some glorious music in a touring production of Donizetti's opera

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WNO Maria StuardaThe bitter rivalry between Queens Elizabeth I and Mary I of Scotland is at the heart of the second of Donizetti's Tudor operas, written in 1834. It's a punchier and tighter work than Anna Bolena (also touring with Welsh National Opera), although the crux of the drama is completely fictitious - the first Act builds up to a vitriolic encounter between the pair which seals Mary's fate. In reality, as far as we know, they didn't ever meet. 

If it's historical fact you want, blame Schiller. Donizetti based his opera, with its libretto by Giuseppe Bardari, on the German author's play of 1800. But for a compelling drama about political power, high emotion and jealous love, look no further. Maria Stuarda, as the title suggests, is on the side of Mary, a free spirit, motivated by love. In contrast, Elizabeth is buttoned-up and brittle; motivated by power and weakened by bitterness over a lost love.

As Elizabeth, soprano Adina Nitescu took a while to warm up, but once she got going she used her fulsome soprano to portray convincingly a woman not to be messed with, who decides to extinguish her rival. As that rival, soprano Judith Howarth's spellbinding musicianship and creamy bel canto underscored Mary's seductive powers and innocence. And when they clash in a cat-fight low enough to be on Jeremy Kyle - Mary calls Elizabeth the impure child of Anne Boleyn, and Anne Boleyn a whore - there was real heartfelt bile. Off the back of this, the story that the two singers in the first production ended up in a real fight thanks to the strength of the insult seems plausible.

WNO Maria StuardaThe men paled somewhat in comparison, though that was more about the opportunities on offer in the opera than the performances. Baritone Gary Griffiths, as Lord Cecil, was full of character, and bass Alastair Miles made a thoughtful Earl of Shrewsbury. Bruce Sledge, the Earl of Leicester, had a warm, robust tenor; on the night I heard him he sometimes seemed at the edge of his voice's limits, but there were moments of tenderness. In his hands, the Earl was a weak character, convincing in his love for Mary, though his manner towards Elizabeth seemed implausibly wooden. And was his suicide at the end – added in by director Rudolf Frey – really a necessary addition to the plot?

Where Donizetti's dramatic instincts were spot on, the director's were all off. Frey's idea of presenting Elizabeth and Mary as twin spirits or alter egos was interesting enough, especially in an age dominated by male power, but its visual representation stifled the stage. Using the same stark black-walled set as in the production of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda also featured two large boxes. One, with transparent walls, was Mary's prison. The other, with panels in wood and gilt, was Elizabeth's – her prison being one of her own creation. At moments, Elizabeth would look into the mirror and see Mary reflected. Yet the boxes took up a huge amount of space to very little effect beyond the basic idea. The only aspect of the set that felt wholly succesful was Matthew Haskins's lighting design; spotlighting faces against the black in a way that suggested portraits of the Tudor period.

The costumes by Madeleine Boyd did even less for the production. Sort of updated, in a modern leather-meets-Tudor-royal way, with a dash of the 19th century for good measure, the women were dressed in black mid-calf ballet-type skirts and tight bodices, while the men wore dreary head-to-shoulder black. Elizabeth joined the ranks in black, while Mary was allowed a tartan skirt - because she was Scottish, you see – and tan leather corset (for want of a better word) followed by a black coat that was whipped off on the way to her execution to show a revealing top that Madonna might once have worn.

Still, we were in safe hands with the conductor Graeme Jenkins, who directed with experienced ease. And if the long applause at the Bristol Hippodrome was anything to go by, even a duff production couldn't ruin the glorious revelling in the human voice that bel canto opera offers, or shake our ongoing fascination with the Terrible Tudors.

Donizetti's Tudor operas are on tour with Welsh National Opera. To find out more about performance times and dates, visit the WNO website. Photos: Robert Workman

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