Cold and rainy England and Scotland exerted what now seems a surprisingly strong pull on Italian opera composers of the first part of the 19th century. Gaetano Donizetti alone had a string of four operas about the Tudors, starting with Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth and quickly followed by Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and finally Roberto Devereux.
But it was Mary Queen of Scots, the Mary Stuart of the title of tonight’s opera, that reigned over the Italian stage: such was her appeal that she featured in a dozen or so operas from this period. The one that remains in the repertoire, however, is Donizetti’s, and in Maria Stuarda, which debuted at Milan’s La Scala in 1835, he had an opera that combined both England and Scotland and had both Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots as protagonists.
Unfortunately, the two Queens never actually met, but the German playwright Friedrich Schiller corrected history by engineering a dramatic encounter at Fotheringay Castle between the two rulers in his play Mary Stuart of 1800. It was this work that formed the basis for Donizetti’s opera and which provides for one of the most thrilling—and blood-curdling—soprano-on-soprano duets in the entire operatic repertoire.
While not exactly a rarity, Maria Stuarda is performed much less often than Donizetti’s great drama Lucia di Lammermoor (also about Scotland). The last time the opera was performed in full in Hong Kong was reportedly in 1986. In the recent Musica Viva production, the dueling queens were performed by Meryl Dominguez and Hilary Ginther, who returned to Hong Kong as Maria and Elisabetta some 18 months after their joint debut here with the same company in Norma. They alternated with Lee Sang-eun (most recently heard in Hong Kong as Butterfly), and Anna Laurenzo. The opera’s tenor role, the ahistorical love interest Robert Leicester was sung by Todd Wilander, almost a Musica Viiva regular, having appeared in Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto and Norma, and Matteo Mezzaro, was making his Hong Kong debut.
The casts were rounded out by local singers: Sammy Chien and Frankie Fung as Talbot, Michael Lam and Isaac Droscha as Cecil, Kenix Tsang and Colette Lam as Anna.
The production was greatly enhanced by stunning period costumes from Andrew Cheung and Isaac Wong’s elegant sets. Wilson Ng was in the pit.
Peter Gordon contributed surtitles and programme notes to this production.