Two fiery Tudor queens have a fatal faceoff in “Mary Stuart” at Seattle Opera.
What could make for better opera than a rivalry over power, religion and love between two dueling, fiery-voiced queens determined to top each other’s highflying insults? Thus was born Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 “Mary Stuart” (“Maria Stuarda”), which makes its local debut at Seattle Opera on Saturday, Feb. 27.
The centerpiece of Donizetti’s “Three Queens” Tudor trilogy, “Mary Stuart” is a pull-out-all-the-stops faceoff between Elizabeth, the Protestant Queen of England, and Mary, the Catholic Queen of the Scots. The opera was considered so hot — in a climactic scene, Mary calls Elizabeth a “vile bastard” — that it was quickly banned by the King of Naples and mostly disappeared until 1958, when a succession of great, hotblooded divas began to revel in its vocal fireworks.
Canadian-Lebanese soprano Joyce El-Khoury, who makes her role debut as Mary Stuart in three performances (Feb. 27 and 28, as well as March 11), is the latest diva poised to make a name for herself as Mary. El-Khoury has come a long way since participating in the Metropolitan Opera’s famed Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and singing in Verdi’s Requiem with Seattle Opera.
Seattle Opera: ‘Mary Stuart’
Feb. 27-March 12 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; tickets from $25-$274 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).
Encouraged by the Met’s James Levine to explore the intensely dramatic bel canto roles of Donizetti, Verdi and others, she soon made her mark in two recordings of rare Donizetti operas, and in performances from London and Munich to St. Louis and Santa Fe.
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“I sing Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ a lot, and I’ve been doing it from the beginning,” El-Khoury explained by phone. “Directors and conductors repeatedly asked if I sang ‘Mary Stuart,’ saying ‘it would be so perfect for you.’ Finally, here she is. I can’t wait. That confrontation scene, where they throw their voices out like weapons, is amazing.”
El-Khoury is referring to the finale of act one, when the imprisoned Mary struggles to control her emotions during a confrontation with her cousin Elizabeth, who will eventually order Mary’s beheading. With tensions heightened by a disastrous love triangle, Mary seals her fate with the “vile bastard” insult. It’s a juicy, Bette Davis-like moment that can make vocal legends — it’s no wonder that such great artists as Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, Maria Devia, Janet Baker and Joyce DiDonato have championed the role of Mary.
“I’ve been working the last few years to train my voice like an acrobat to be able to do all the things bel canto requires,” El-Khoury said. “It’s hard to put into words, but there’s something about this role that my brain and heart understand … It was instinctive for me from the beginning.”
The soprano said her “fiery Lebanese temperament” has her poised to sing the confrontation scene and “just let it rip,” but she’s equally eager to sing Mary’s final-act prayer scene.
“I am very touched by meditative music,” she said. “The prayer scene, where I kneel while surrounded by the voices of the beautiful chorus … is a very moving moment, and at the heart of who Mary is. It’s also the part of the role that speaks the most to me, and will enable me to show the audience who I am.”
Helping El-Khoury rise to the challenge is the dynamic opera, theater and film director Kevin Newbury, who originated this production in Minnesota before directing Donizetti’s other Tudor Trilogy operas in Houston, Chicago and Montreal.
“I always come back to the Donizetti sopranos because they were such strong female leaders,” Newbury said by phone. “Seattle has given me two amazing casts. Joyce can really act and really sing, and she’s not afraid to go to dangerous emotional places. Opera is about working with people like Joyce to create art with a theatrical punch.”