Soprano Joyce El-Khoury brought both vulnerability and steel to her role debut in Seattle Opera’s “Mary Stuart” — and sang it two days in a row, filling in for the opening-night singer, who was indisposed.

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Opera is all about drama and voice. But in Seattle Opera’s first-ever production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Mary Stuart” (“Maria Stuarda”), there was a little more drama than usual about the voice in the title role. The opening-night Mary Stuart, Serena Farnocchia, was indisposed — which meant that the alternate soprano, Joyce El-Khoury, would have to sing not only Saturday night’s opening performance, but Sunday afternoon’s as well.

That’s a lot of Donizetti, and a lot of high notes, within a span of about 21 hours. And it’s a reminder of how fortunate we are in Seattle to have an opera company that double-casts its leading roles; Mary Stuart sopranos are in fairly short supply.

Saturday’s opener was highly enjoyable, a costume drama with lots of fiery energy from the opposing queens — El-Khoury’s Mary Stuart and her victorious rival Elizabeth I, sung by Mary Elizabeth Williams. The Neil Patel sets were spare and functional but only slightly suggestive of Tudor magnificence, except for an opulent ceiling and a huge painting. Jessica Jahn’s costumes offered elegant attire for the principals, but an especially subdued palette for the chorus, in an era noted for the spectacular outfits of Elizabethan courtiers. But the strong personalities on the stage offered all the visual and vocal drama an audience could require.

Opera review

Seattle Opera: ‘Mary Stuart’

By Gaetano Donizetti with Carlo Montanaro conducting, through March 12 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$274 (206-389-7676 or

Williams’ Elizabeth, who took center stage on opening night, was a memorable portrayal from this former Seattle Opera Young Artist who has appeared in several leading roles here. Feisty and mighty, Williams’ soprano was equally impressive when she lightened it in moments of highly effective refinement. She knows how to command the stage and how to establish the power of her personality through gesture and movement, as well as with her voice.

As Leicester, Elizabeth’s favorite who is secretly in love with her rival Mary, tenor John Tessier gave a beautifully finished and vocally elegant performance of what must be one of the most hapless roles in opera. (He repeatedly praises Mary’s beauty to her outraged royal rival; you can bet the real Leicester would not have been so maladroit.)

On Saturday night, El-Khoury scored a triumph in the title role, combining an exquisite delicacy of sound with affecting vulnerability — yet producing plenty of steel in the confrontation scene in which she denounces Elizabeth as a “vil bastarda.”

On Sunday, few in the house realized that El-Khoury had just sung this taxing role the previous evening — and you couldn’t tell it from her Sunday performance, either. Skillfully saving her voice when she could, singing full-out when it counted, El-Khoury rallied for a remarkable show and a final mighty effort, a brave high D. Brava!

Singing alongside El-Khoury on Sunday was Keri Alkema as a stellar Elizabeth, who began the show with a fairly heavy vibrato but rose to wonderfully incisive, powerful singing as the show went on. Her Leicester, Andrew Owens, initially sounded a bit underpowered, but he brought a touching urgency to his scenes with El-Khoury’s Mary.

Supporting roles were exceptionally well taken by Weston Hurt (an empathetic Talbot) and Michael Todd Simpson (a steely, majestic Cecil). Renée Rapier was a fine Hannah.

Kevin Newbury’s canny staging had the two rival queens circling each other like sleek jungle cats, building the excitement to their ultimate confrontation. His deployment of the chorus was less thrilling; the courtiers often milled about like a school of drab fish. The chorus, prepared by John Keene, was absolutely riveting, however, in the last act, with powerful singing and memorable dramatic impact. D.M. Wood’s lighting created some brilliant effects, the most vivid of which was the eerily backlit, spectral appearance of Mary in the last act.

The buoyant, vital conducting of Carlo Montanaro, always one of the most accomplished of opera conductors, underscored this production’s artistic values with careful attention to the singers and hefty doses of musical drama.