MUSIC | "Mary Stuart" at the Minnesota Opera: A long goodbye

Judith Howarth and Brenda Harris in Mary Stuart. Photo by Michal Daniel, courtesy Minnesota Opera.

Even if you don't know much about classical music, you can appreciate opera because it features situations everyone can relate to. For example, Gaetano Donizetti's Mary Stuart: you know you need to sign your cousin's death warrant because she was party to treasonous plots against you, and furthermore has been sending mash notes from her prison cell to your lover, who was once hers. But you keep putting it off and putting it off because you're busy being queen and, after all, she is your cousin (albeit once removed). I mean, who hasn't been there?

Mary Stuart is currently being staged at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts by the Minnesota Opera as the second in Donizetti's Tudor Trilogy; the first installment, Roberto Devereux, was staged last season and the next, Anna Boleyn, is slated for the 2012-13 season. Many elements from Devereux return, including Neil Patel's striking set and Queen Elizabeth herself: Brenda Harris, reprising her role. Jessica Jahn also returns as costume designer, but except for Elizabeth's butterfly-winged execution-going garb, her work is unremarkable; Mary climbs the scaffold in an unflattering blaze-red gown that, coupled with a modest bonnet, looks like something you'd find at an Amish whorehouse.

mary stuart, presented through february 6 at the ordway center for the performing arts. for tickets ($20-$200) and information, see mnopera.org.

Like Devereux, Mary Stuart has a pretty simple plot when it comes to the onstage action, but draws on an intimidatingly vast range of European royal history that even the Royals themselves probably couldn't entirely keep track of while it was happening—especially with no gossip blogs to use as crib sheets. Stuart (Judith Howarth) is already in prison when the curtain rises. At the urging of their mutual man Leicester (Bruce Sledge), Elizabeth gives Stuart a chance to apologize. Stuart blows it ("Royal bastard!"), and at the beginning of Act II, Elizabeth picks up the feather and signs Stuart's death warrant. Emoting ensues.

It's a strong production, but you have to know what you're getting into. There's little in the way of comic antics or grand battles here: you've pretty much got two chagrined women trading powerful arias. Both divas are up to the task, though as with Devereux, Harris has the more thankless role and is outshone by her costar—then Tamara Klivadenko, now the precise and empathetic Howarth. In the crucial role of Leicester, Sledge sings well but does a terrible job as an actor: when he's shown the death warrant of the woman he loves, he gives Elizabeth a look like she's just asked him to wash the castle's windows.

In this relatively short opera, conductor Anne Manson and stage director Kevin Newbury give the performers lots of room—physically and otherwise—and as with Devereux, Bel Canto buffs will be well-pleased. You know who you are.

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Jay Gabler's picture
Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.