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Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots [Photo by Michal Daniel courtesy of Minnesota Opera]
01 Feb 2011

Maria Stuarda, Minnesota Opera

The 2010-2011 season for Minnesota Opera is steeped in Bel Canto opera selections, starting with Rossini’s Cenerentola this fall, currently featuring Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, and for the spring, a production of Verdi’s La Traviata with acclaimed Violetta, Elizabeth Futral.

Gaetano Donizetti: Maria Stuarda

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots: Judith Howarth; Elizabeth I, Queen of England: Brenda Harris; Robert, Earl of Leicester: Bruce Sledge; Lord Cecil, Elizabeth's councilor: Michael Nyby; Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury: Jonathan Kimple; Anne, Maria's nurse: Victoria Vargas. Conductor: Anne Manson. Stage Director: Kevin Newbury. Set Designer: Neil Patel. Costume Designer: Jessica Jahn. Lighting Designer: D. M. Wood.

Above: Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots

All photos by Michal Daniel courtesy of Minnesota Opera


The current production of Maria Stuarda is the company’s second installment of the Donizetti Tudor trilogy, with a production of Roberto Devereax in the 2009-2010 season.

The casting of dueling sopranos, Judith Howarth (Mary Stuart) and Brenda Harris (Elizabeth I), was spot on. Harris’ golden soprano houses a steely core, which captured both the warmth and terror of the strong-willed queen in perfect balance. Her opening cavatina and cabaletta, “Ah! quando all’ara sorgemi…Ah dal ciel discenda un raggio” boasted incredibly fierce coloratura, and ascents into the heights of her voice that both thrilled and terrified. Harris is clearly at home in the Bel Canto repertoire, though her performance with Minnesota Opera was her debut of Queen Elizabeth I in Maria Stuarda.

1335.gifMichael Nyby as Lord Cecil, Elizabeth's councilor and Brenda Harris as Elizabeth I, Queen of England

Judith Howarth’s silvery, spinning soprano was a wonderful juxtaposition to Harris’ Elizabeth. Howarth gave Maria great depth of character, vocally with amazing vocal and dramatic finesse and flexibility. In the finale of Act I, Howarth’s biting Italian diction and metallic high notes struck lightning during her quarrel with Elizabeth, while her sustained B-flat sustained over the chorus in Act III seemed to emerge out of the ether.

Both Howarth and Harris are seasoned veterans of the Bel Canto repertory, and both approached these women with strong and meaningful dramatic and vocal choices. Tenor Bruch Sledge (Earl of Leicester) nailed Donizetti’s style musically, but his overall dramatic execution of the role paled in comparison to the two queens. Sledge was quite awkward in his Act I duet with Howarth, not connecting to her musical phrasing or even the dramatic conversation. His stage deportment was impotent, and the love triangle plot became quite implausible.

Victoria Vargas’ Anne sparked with complete ease in the coloratura and line, and infused a fullness and warmth that easily cut through the orchestration. This is certainly the best singing from this Resident Artist so far this season.

Performances: Feb. 1, 3, 5, and 6 at Ordway

Sarah Luebke

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