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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Divas duel in University Opera's outstanding Maria Stuarda
Emily Birsan (left) as Maria Stuarda, J. Adam Shelton as Leicester and Celeste Fraser as Queen Elizabeth.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

The pageantry of Elizabethan England reigned in UW Music Hall on Friday as the University Opera staged an outstanding premiere of Maria Stuarda, Gaetano Donizetti's tragic opera about love, treachery and a family feud that threatens the English throne.

Donizetti and librettist Giuseppe Bardari, a 17-year-old law student, based the opera on Friedrich von Schiller's play about the toxic relationship between Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and her cousin Elizabeth I of England.

As history tells it, Mary was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favor of her son, James VI, because of her unsavory past. She fled to England for help from Elizabeth, but the situation dissolved into a battle over religion and power. It seems that Mary lost when, after 19 years in prison, she was tried and beheaded for treason in 1587. But the libretto casts her as the victor, since she had changed her ways during her prison years and had cultivated saintly doses of compassion and forgiveness.

Set designer Angelina Paoli chose dark colors accented with gold to create the weighty grandeur of an English castle. The opening set echoed the dark drama in the opening chords of Donizetti's overture, nicely played by the UW Chamber Orchestra. The clarinet solo in the beginning was especially poignant.

Costume designers Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park stayed true to the dress of the period with ruffs, farthingales and gowns that swished with every turn.

In reality Elizabeth and Mary never met, but the opera imagines a face-to-face encounter shortly before Mary's death. Soprano Celeste Fraser, who plays Elizabeth, has a voice that's rich in the high range with lots of power. Her portrayal of the monarch emphasized Elizabeth's vein, haughty side rather than her shrewd political nature.

Soprano Emily Birsan, who plays Mary, is a versatile singer and actress and was clearly the audience favorite last evening. Her high notes are clear and weightless while maintaining a strong presence in the lower range. Donizetti's florid writing highlighted Birsan's lyricism, and her dynamic range added color and dimension to Mary's character.

With two powerful divas in the opera, the men had to work extra hard. Both Elizabeth and Mary were in love with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester (J. Adam Shelton), and he had the hard job of trying to keep peace between them. At first Shelton's voice seemed too sweet to handle such powerful leading ladies, but he held his own and was especially pleasing in his duets with them. I thought Justin Niehoff Smith had just the right high-and-mighty air in his role as Cecil, the Lord High Treasurer. It was clear that he was doggedly devoted to Elizabeth and wanted Mary dead. But Anna (Megan Gryga) and Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury (John Arnold), were clearly on Mary's side and sang their roles with devotion.

The ensembles worked well -- the duets, trios and sextets were tight without straggling voices or rhythms. Even the recitatives held our attention.

William Farlow, director of the University Opera, should be mighty proud of his crew. Maria Stuarda is a demanding and difficult opera that requires a lot of stamina. Even though it had a rough beginning during its premiere in 1835, the University Opera's performance just might put it on the fast track.

University Opera performs Maria Stuarda on Sunday, April 25 at 3 p.m. and Tuesday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m.

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