One of the pleasures of theatre is that performances vary from night to night. That was certainly the case at The Lowry last night when, during the intermission, one of the principal singers inhaled dust and was unable to continue. Despite the absence of an understudy a spoken synopsis ensured that, as it always must, the show went on - albeit without Scene One of Act Three.

Given the choice between reality and legend the advice is to go for the latter. Donizetti does just that building his opera Mary Stuart around an imagined confrontation between the titular heroine and her nemesis Queen Elizabeth. The author clearly sympathises with Mary Stuart as, although the character does not appear until the second act of the opera, the mere mention of her name provokes gorgeous melodies.

Sarah Connolly gives us an ambiguous character. Although Mary is introduced with pastoral tunes apparently at peace in country retirement Connolly shows how easily Mary’s pride makes her succumb to the temptation of getting involved in the political life of the court. So successful is her interpretation that it is a little hard to accept the change in the character as Mary repents her past behaviour and tries to achieve peace with her guilt.

Antonia Cifone does not take the lazy approach of making Elizabeth the mirror image of Mary. Her Queen is very much the ruler - imperious and, frankly, cruel. Her decisions regarding Mary’s fate seem motivated by emotion as much as calculation. The approach is made all the more powerful by the physical appearance of Cifone. Her soaring voice makes clear why, despite her petit frame, she is able to command loyalty and fear. 

Donizetti’s score perfectly reflects the surging emotions onstage and is given sympathetic interpretation by conductor Guido Johannes Rumstadt who brings out the drama of the opera.

Director and designer Antony McDonald does not give us a gloomy gothic design but rather a modern/timeless production. The clean cut wooden structures bring to mind an austere church but one in which the walls literally close in on the characters to show the paranoid atmosphere of the Queen’s court with underlings eavesdropping on every conversation. His direction does not waste a second bringing a sense of inevitability to the proceedings. The overture is played over a disturbing scene of the young Mary and Elizabeth playing a childish game that foreshadows the bleak conclusion.
 
The backdrops used to change scenes are not always successful. Although Fotheringhay Park is caught with a misty charm an enlarged image of Regina’s gown is puzzling and a poor painting of two priests distracts from the grief of Mary’s final hours.
 
The major problem with the opera is that it peaks too soon. The confrontation at the end of the first act provides a musical as well as an emotional climax. The interaction between all of the major characters generates a powerful merging of voices. Although the music in the second act is still outstanding the absence of conflict reduces the drama and Connolly’s vocals alone, whilst excellent, do not have the same impact.

Despite the enormous pleasure of Mary Stuart there is still a lingering frustration that the full potential is not achieved.

- Dave Cunningham