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Donizetti Mary, Queen of Scots
English Touring Opera at The Hawth, Crawley, 30 March 2005

Donizetti's Mary, Queen of Scots is burdened by its libretto, a sad travesty of historical fact and Schiller's complexity. English Touring Opera's production has received high praise and we caught up with it at Crawley's The Hawth, an impressively colourful and comfortable arts centre near Gatwick Airport. To make things clear, the packed audience there, all of whom seemed to have come by car, was enthusiastic and seemed entirely contented; but we outsiders were not, which can be a disturbing experience.

The crux of our disappointment stemmed, we think, from the decision to present this opera on a shoe-string in traditional period costuming and performance style. The travelling set (Soutra Glimour), designed for shallow stages, easy dismantling and transportation, tended to negate the whole effect of a 19th C historical grand opera.

The main prop was a two story erection with flimsy sliding panels, and an industrial type staircase. With small adjustments it had to transport us between Westminster and Fotheringay Park (where the famous fictitious meeting between the two queens took place). It might have served better for Butterfly's abode; there is a limit to suspension of disbelief in the theatre. Elizabeth and her Court had sometimes to sit on the floor of a bare front stage, with no chairs! Later there was one imposing chair/throne which had to serve for both queens and made all the royal derring-do implausible.

Sight lines are superb in The Hawth's steeply raked theatre, but the acoustic was very dry from our press seats far up under the circle, with almost no reverberation. That might have contributed to our worry about Queen Elizabeth's excessively wide vibrato (probably Jennifer Rhys-Davies - there was some confusion in the programme about dates of alternates). It made a disconcerting impression in the early scenes; we wondered whether she was out of voice that night? There was no equality of vocal arms in the great conrontation.

Anne Mason as Mary was authorative in her vulnerability and when giving way to self-destroying fury. She sang her difficult and demanding role with complete control and lustrous tone and her (authentic) last letter to Elizabeth before execution was movingly delivered. Nicholas Ransley (Mary's champion, Leicester) has a faster, light vibrato than Elizabeth's and his assumption of the tenor role was satisfying; the other supporting singers left no strong impressions.

Sur-titles dutifully shadowed the sufficiently audible English translation, its clumsiness exaggerated by visual duplication line by line exactly as they were being repeated in the arias and ensembles. Performance in Italian with English surtitles might have served Donizetti better, even though against the ENO and ETO policy of opera in the vernacular.

The director James Conway provided a helpful programme note to set the historical scene, and he warned us of the dilution of the male characters in Donizetti's version; what we saw made it seem that his heart was not in a near impossible task, given the touring constraints.

Anne Mason's Mary alone made our journey seem (nearly) worthwhile, whilst we took the long walk back to the station in the drizzle (no buses or taxis to be seen). But do not let our reservations dissuade you from supporting ETO, an essential company which has many remarkable achievements to its credit, q.v. their magical Midsummer Night's Dream.

© Peter Grahame Woolf