Thursday, January 27, 2011

Trash-Talking Queens: The Minnesota Opera's Mary Stuart

Let me clarify this post by saying that, despite my completion of opera boot camp, I am still a novice in the area of this theatrical form. So I am writing about my experience of seeing the Minnesota Opera's production of Mary Stuart as an inexperienced opera-goer in the hopes that it will encourage others who are brand new to opera to go see this show, or at least an opera somewhere at some point.

Two angry queens. Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart and Brenda Harris as Queen Elizabeth.

THE STIGMA ATTACHED TO OPERA IS AN INTERESTING ONE. Sure, there is a large fan base for this art-form, but there are also many people who snub it, assuming it is boring or over one's head. But opera is based in raw human emotion, which most of us have access to, and the added bonus of being set to beautiful music.

Take Gaetano Donizetti's Mary Stuart, the Minnesota Opera's latest production beginning January 29, 2011 at the Ordway. It's the story of Queen Elizabeth I (Brenda Harris) and her half-sister Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (Judith Howarth). These two queens have a lot in common, including their hatred for one another, their love for the same man, and their interest in the same throne. All of this culminates into a vicious verbal throw-down at the end of the first act.

"You're a whore!" Mary Stuart shouts at Elizabeth. "You bastard!" Not exactly inaccessible or snobby language there. And it's great to hear those words set to such intense music performed by members of the Minnesota Orchestra.

This is an Italian opera, and though the action on stage manages to convey most of what is going on, it is helpful to read the super titles. For those of you who have not been to an opera, super titles are like closed captioning. The words are translated to English on a small screen above the stage. And it is fun to discover just how heated the language gets in this show.

Howarth and Harris each display their emotions, from fear to deviousness, concern to murderous rage, as effortlessly as they maneuver their voices through grand cascades of notes. Jessica Jahn took great care with the costume design. Queen Elizabeth exudes the grandeur of a queen, especially in one gown that seems to be made of gold. Mary Stuart is lavishly dressed as well, but in what looks to be mourning attire. The chorus is dressed in cold monochromes, sterling hues of blues and purples. It seems the attire is as moody as the characters themselves.

In the second act, we find that the fight between the two queens has solidified Elizabeth's wishes to end Mary Stuart's life. And at first Mary seems okay with this because then she won't have to look at Elizabeth ever again. Talk about angry! But soon Mary calms down and prepares for her demise with more honest feelings of fear. And though the townspeople proclaim Mary Stuart is dying an innocent, it's not all that cut and dry (pardon the pun). In a previous scene, Mary confesses to taking the life of one of her husbands. In real life, Mary Stuart is suspected of killing three of her husbands (divorce was looked at more seriously as a sin back then, after all.)

This is a bare-bones description of the plot, and there are so many more confessions between the two main characters and the men in their lives. For a more in-depth description of the plot, here is the synopsis on the Minnesota Opera's website. But watching the plot between these two famous and unbalanced queens unfold in person will be a much more exciting experience.

PS. There were cartoonists in the audience during this performance. Check out some of their work on The Big Time Attic Blog.