Donizetti’s Mary Stuart famously deals with the non-historical confrontation of Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. With Antonia Cifrone and Sarah Connolly lined up for the parts, I expected the last production of an excellent season to be a major highlight. In the event it wasn’t quite the triumph I’d expected.

In fact the opera keeps the two apart for most of the evening. First Elizabeth receives conflicting advice about how to deal with Mary, then Leicester, rather surprisingly devoted to Mary, contrives a meeting and at the end of Act 2 the celebrated confrontation brings a most unregal exchange of insults (notably “bastard”) which dooms Mary. There is no contact in the final act, one queen involved in signing the death warrant, the other committed to the scaffold.

Director/designer Antony McDonald’s approach seems to put imaginative conceits before direction of characters. After a harmless, but pointless, mime for the young Mary and Elizabeth, the chorus, clad in unflattering 20th century suits go through stylised regimented moves while the principals hardly relate to one another and have to rely on unconvincing generic gestures. Actor/mime Paul Spruce, the only performer apart from the two queens allowed Tudor costume, rather absurdly pursues Elizabeth in an exaggerated doublet and hose as the French ambassador. As a result the opening court scene relies heavily on Cifrone’s vibrant attack and sheer stage presence.

The production settles down and in the last scene the chorus is extremely moving in the Verdi-like chorus of execution and in Mary’s final prayer. By this point, too, Guido Johannes Rumstadt is getting sumptuous playing from the orchestra. However, there is still rather a lot of standard issue glowering, pushing and aimless pacing from the male principals. David Kempster’s stalwart Cecil – all vocal power and stiff movement – is a villain without subtlety and Bulent Bezduz fields an attractive, if sometimes strained, tenor as Leicester, but bases much of his acting on variations of hands over the mouth. Only the excellent Frederic Bourreau, a sympathetic and well sung Talbot, looks really at ease.

This leaves the two principals. Antonia Cifrone is fearless vocally, dramatically convincing, despite the inertness surrounding her at times, and her committed performance more than compensates for some shrillness and unevenness in her singing. Sarah Connolly offers more nuanced singing, briefly explosive at the height of the confrontation, more often exploring subtler shades of nostalgia, regret or devotion. In a production where effective character relationships are not the norm, her scene with Talbot is an exception. On the first night an apology was given for Connolly’s throat infection. There was no vocal evidence of it, quite the opposite, but maybe later audiences will enjoy an even finer performance!

McDonald’s set design is functional and elegant enough, the costumes for both queens striking. The first night audience response was enthusiastic enough to make me wonder whether my muted reaction was simply the result of too high expectations.

- Ron Simpson