Opera: If the bodice fits, wear it



POWER DRESSING. With two proud queens locked in mortal antipathy and Jasper Conran as costume designer, it is no more and no less than you would expect from Gale Edwards's new production of Donizetti's Mary Stuart at English National Opera. At the court of Elizabeth I, a masquerade celebrating the queen's proposed marriage to the King of France spills over into a silver and black parody of Elizabethan haute couture - an unsettling mix of period style and modern fabric. The queen herself, a vision in crimson organza all too redolent of the Widow Twankey at the walk-down (the tinsel head-dress is the culprit, I fear), is "dished up" on a long revolving banqueting table, parading before her courtiers as she might down a catwalk. Mary, meanwhile, languishes at Fotheringhay in mournful black. Crimson will, of course, be her fashion statement on the long walk to the scaffold, Elizabeth now decked out in the complementary black leather bodice of a cruel Elizabethan dominatrix. Dressed to kill. Subtle, eh? So much for the fashion notes.

In fact, the show is more stylish and more discreet than any of this might suggest. Gale Edwards and her set designer, Peter J Davison, clear more space than they fill. It is the actors who fill it, own it. Apart from the aforementioned table, which can either elevate or circumscribe the action - as in the scene between Elizabeth and Leicester, where it serves to keep them apart, to underline the division between the queen's private desires and public duty - the only other significant scenic metaphor comprises two gigantic stone facsimiles of letters passing between Mary and Elizabeth. That they are set in stone serves as a constant reminder that the differences between the two are irreconcilable. In the final scene, Mary's letter is reduced to a pile of rubble.

Edwards is a natural opera director. She understands its formalities - the value of powerful blocking, the virtues of visual symmetry, the concentration inherent in "frozen" operatic tableaux. She and Davison (and their lighting designer, Jean Kalman) create some arresting stage pictures. In the scene where Elizabeth signs Mary's death warrant, she is discovered wigless and ashen-faced against crimson pillows and drapes, looking for all the world as if her own death warrant has been signed long ago. The dress she will wear to Mary's execution is set on a faceless mannequin, the spectre of her public image. And that public, a chorus rejoicing for Elizabeth in the first scene, mourning Mary in the last, rightly directs its fickle commentary to us, the opera audience.

Under Jean-Yves Ossonce's reliable direction (and from the first pages of the prelude, the pale and interesting presence of the ENO orchestra's principle clarinet should be singled out) we were well served. Gwynne Howell's Talbot was the voice of authority and experience, Ashley Holland's Cecil was sound; John Hudson's Leicester showed notable development in this singer's work, namely a genuine concern for the elegant turns and long-tapered diminuendos of the lyric style. But the evening hung, just as it always does, on the duel of the divas - specifically that fictional but thrillingly combative head-to-head, crown-to-crown, claw-to-claw, in scene two.

Susan Parry, a volatile stage performer, found the bearing and composure and haughtiness of the embittered Elizabeth, carrying her vulgar costumes with some aplomb. But this plangent mezzo voice displayed some resistance to the higher tessitura of the role. The top notes were there, but visibly prepared for, and pushed forth, like separate events; the coloratura, too, sounded more an encumbrance than a liberation, failing to come naturally off the text as it can and must. Perhaps it will settle. Ann Murray, by contrast, was having a vintage night, the quality and focus of the sound better than I've heard from her in a long time. The artistry you take for granted. Recalling her early life in France, this Mary took phrase after phrase to far-off parts of her memory. The way the sound died on the breath, the way the caress of the coloratura was shaped by the words, and vice versa. Of course we all awaited her big moment, the moment that seals her fate - her venomous cry of "royal bastard!" But how much more memorable were the final moments of her death scene: an unforgettable melisma spun from the arching phrases of the line "She [Elizabeth] need not suffer remorseful feelings, for with my bloodshed, they'll wash away." No fashion victim, this.

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