17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 56


Mary Stuart (Coliseum)

Hard act to follow

Michael Tanner

ENO's opening performance of their new production of Mary Stuart began 46 hours after the Royal Opera's GOtterdlim- merung ended, something that I find more of a stumbling block than many enviable critics whose rate of Ring-recovery, even from a performance they find shattering, is much faster than mine.

There is a serious question, I think, of the rate at which one is expected to discard the impression made by one work of art, especially if it is of transcendent stature, in order to make way for another, of whatever stature. If the second work is also very great, it is likely to seem to be attempting to displace the first, and a kind of unsavoury conflict between the two arises. If it is of inferior quality, it is apt to seem merely irrelevant — or should do, 'placed' as it is by the grandeur of the first. The only alternative is to be so critically experi- enced, or blasé, that the first is shrugged off, just another item to be reviewed. It is when I get to that stage that I hope to give up writing about opera. Indeed, it seems to me that anyone who is able to recover from the Ring, even in a moderate performance, in order to make way for Donizetti the next day but one, is not in a proper position to judge the merits of what he saw and heard.

I don't know how seriously I could respond to Mary Stuart under other circum- stances, though my memories of the previ- ous ENO production in 1982 are of a rather more impressive work than the one I saw last week. I'm not sure about the rela- tive virtues of the editions used, though the new version does seem to be in a hurry to be over. There are certainly cuts to repeats of arias, and curtailed duets. I suppose that Donizetti is regarded in the same light that Handel was a couple of generations ago, as having some sound dramatic instincts but being in thrall to the conventions of his time, so needing assistance in the form of mutilation. What do you do with a feeble aria, granted that you can't eliminate it? present it in its full dreariness or only make a gesture in its direction? My inclination would be to do the former, but the ENO team took the latter course.

The fundamental trouble is that Mary Stuart is not, except for the final two scenes, Donizetti at anywhere near his best. The opening scene at Elizabeth's court is perfunctory, though the high jinks of the production, with an acrobat and strangely clad dancers, made it fun. Not much of Elizabeth's music gets inside the character, though Susan Parry did what she could with it. The scales are tilted, in every way, in favour of Mary, and Ann Murray did a great deal more than I thought she could with that; she was on better form than for several years, and made of the part some- thing akin to genuine suffering nobility.

The celebrated confrontation between the two queens carried less weight than it ought to, but I suspect that is the compos- er's fault. The music is mere generalised slapdash Italian hammer and tongs, and Murray didn't help the situation by shout- ing rather than singing at the climax of the slanging match. I thought it a good stroke that Parry responded to her insults by remaining still and stunned rather than waddling furiously away. Everyone knows about this scene, partly because it is blatant but inspired historical fiction, partly because it is the only genuinely dramatic thing in the whole opera. Yet what makes the piece worth reviving at all is not its drama, but the sustained quietness of Mary's final meditations.

`Sixteen years have passed,' states the programme note and the libretto for this production, though without authorial war- rant, I think. This gave the director, Gale Edwards, a chance to present the queens as crumbling specimens, though oddly no one else was affected or afflicted by the ageing process. Elizabeth was discovered balding and infirm, but all the more tyrannical, a striking spectacle but one wholly indepen- dent of text and action. Mary was arthritic for her scene with Talbot, but regained her youthful independent stride for her final walk to the gallows. Here, in scenes both reminiscent of and of almost the same `It's OK for you to say "slow down", but how?' quality as Anna Bolena, Murray rose to great heights. If her conductor had been more yielding, more idiomatic than Jean- Yves Ossonce it could have been a more moving half hour than it was. Gwynne Howell's Talbot was warm and sympathet- ic; one wonders whether he will ever tire of playing roles like this. John Hudson's Leicester wasn't of either the visual or aural appeal to turn two queens' heads, but he was good enough to get better. The faint air of tentativeness that hung over the first night should soon go, and then this will be at least a respectable production of the piece.