Review: Donizetti’s Mary Stuart

6 years ago
Til Knowles

For the first time in over twenty years, Donizetti’s Mary Stuart is being performed in Melbourne. Like the Frederich Schiller play on which it is based, the opera focuses on the rivalry between Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth the first. While the two queens never met in real life, Donizetti imagines them as fighting not only for power, but also for love. The emphasis on Mary’s emotionality and Elizabeth’s stoicism is cleverly undermined by the former’s wiles and the latter’s romantic feelings. Broken into three acts, Mary Stuart’s narrative details the titular character’s final months and Elizabeth’s decision to commit regicide.

Mary pleading with Elizabeth

The crowd at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre is a good mixture of young and old, and it’s hard to pick the seasoned opera goers from the newcomers. Production company Melbourne Opera run entirely on private donations, receiving no government funding, a fantastic feat that results in lovingly built productions. The combination of the venue, the set and the costumes makes for an intensely intimate experience. The costumes are rich, naturalistic velvet designs with colours to compliment royalty, and are from the previous Opera Australia production of Mary Stuart. This contrasts to the sparse, symbolic set, designed by Christina Logan-Bell. The classic Tudor iconography – the rose, the orb and the crown – are all present, offsetting the details of the costumes and the power of the drama.

Elena Xanthoudakis and Rosamund Illing are perfectly cast as the duelling soprano queens. The tension between them is electrifying as their hatred for one another builds towards destruction. Each line sung, by the supporting cast and chorus as well as the mains, is clear and filled with emotion. Yet Xanthoudakis’ Mary steals the show and the hearts of the audience with her passion and rage. The experience of conductor Richard Divall makes for a seamless composite of orchestra and vocalists.

Perhaps the only flaw with the production was its final scene. The drama that had otherwise been carried so heavily seemed to float away, as though everyone on stage had just run out of energy. Mary’s costume change into a plain red gown, and her slow ascent up the scaffold seemed symbolic yet empty, most of the confidence and tragedy drained away. It wasn’t quite, as one audience member put it, the ‘usual spine-tingling moment’ that opera stirs up.


I confess to not being particularly well versed in the ins and outs of opera, which is why this review is perhaps a little less detailed than if it had been written by an aficionado. I did, however, take a frequent opera attendee along (my mum). Despite our varying levels of experience with opera, we both agreed – Mary Stuart is an intense and successful production. Melbourne Opera’s attention to detail makes for a show that is universally accessible. (And it helps that the singing is in English.)

Mary Stuart is on at the Athenaeum Theatre on September 5th, 8th & 12th, and the Alexander Theatre at Monash University on the 19th. Tickets are available from

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