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The voices match the charisma of these queens

Weston Hurt as Lord Cecil, Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Elizabeth and Eric Cutler as the Earl of Leicester.

MICHAEL COOPER

Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti

  • Canadian Opera Company
  • Serena Farnocchia, soprano
  • Alexandrina Pendatchanska, soprano
  • Antony Walker, conductor
  • Four Seasons Centre
  • In Toronto on Saturday

Gaetano Donizetti's Maria Stuarda is a funny old toot of a 19{+t}{+h}-century Italian melodrama, full of stock situations, fanciful history and generic arias. But it exists to be sung. For all Donizetti's humdrum manufacture, big-guitar orchestral accompaniments and assembly-line melodies, he does provide each of his five leading characters with juicy vocal opportunities which only require singers capable of taking them.

The strength of the Canadian Opera Company's current production is that its directors have realized this and have engaged five dandy singers - not a weak or a poorly cast one among them.

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This has not always been the case at the COC. The late, lamented artistic director Richard Bradshaw - and God bless him for his large artistic vision and so many other gifts - was not invariably canny in his vocal casting.

Bradshaw's successors, general director Alexander Neef and music director Johannes Debus, so far have been more exacting in their choices, and the musical results have been appreciably better. This season Carmen, (with the curious exception of Escamillo), The Flying Dutchman, and now Maria Stuarda, have been astutely cast, so that all three operas have been fulfilled in their musical essence. Only Otello failed in this regard.

Maria Stuarda, in a rather handsome Dallas Opera production designed by Benoît Dugardyn (sets) and Ingeborg Bernerth (costumes) opened Saturday afternoon in the kind of vocally responsible and stylistically commanding performance that alone can justify programming this particular opera. Of Donizetti's 65 (yes, count 'em!) completed operas, Maria Stuarda is by no means his best. But this production contends, and I think proves, that it can be well worthwhile.

As the two charismatic queens - Mary Stuart of Scotland and her nemesis Elizabeth I of England - the Italian Serena Farnocchia (Mary) and the Bulgarian Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Elizabeth) could not easily be improved upon.

Farnocchia is not strong histrionically - her Mary lacks a fragile natural pathos. But her big smooth soprano is a pleasure and her confession scene with Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury (superbly sung by American bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi) and her final aria were perhaps the musical high point Saturday night.

Pendatchanska brings a Bette-Davis dramatic authority, a killer coloratura and a rock-solid musicality to her Elizabeth, and has a strong Svengalian partner-in-connivance in American baritone Weston Hurt's stately and sinister Lord Cecil.

American tenor Eric Cutler is an impassioned and persuasive Earl of Leicester, in love with Mary but ruled by a jealous Elizabeth. A pity his great clunky white shoes looked more like the boxes they came in.

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But all three men, especially Carfizzi, are very good singers and Donizetti has provided them with well-tailored material.

Vancouver soprano Simone Osborne as the one minor character - Anna, Mary's faithful companion - behaved and sang impeccably.

Australian conductor Antony Walker led the orchestra with spirit, but he must remember that in the Four Seasons Centre, the orchestra all too easily can engulf the singers.

Sandra Horst's COC chorus was exemplary. Stephen Lawless's stage direction was too fond of having his queens and lords lolling semi-prone on the steps (Elizabeth would never loll; she even died standing) but otherwise was decent.

Maria Stuarda runs until May 30 at the Four Seasons Centre.

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