Opera Up Close are an enterprising small opera company who specialise in taking small-scale productions of unusual operas to venues around Britain. This visit on a sunny Sunday afternoon is their only Scottish date.
It is appropriate that historic St Andrews should host this opera about a major Scottish historical figure, Mary Queen of Scots. Of course Donizetti’s treatment of this Maria Stuarda is not unknown. Indeed, Joyce Di Donato recently starred in it at Covent Garden.
For this production, the opera is in a shortened form with an English libretto by Opera Up Close director Robin Norton-Hale. The music is orchestrated for six singers and three musicians, and in St Andrews it is performed in the round with a few props and costumes and with the audience grouped around it. This makes the action very accessible, but creates a problem in listening to the meaning of the English translation. The problem is that singers and audience are close together and opera-trained voices are so powerful, it is often difficult to make out the words in the English libretto.
Given these problems, this is a challenging performance, but worthwhile for a number of reasons. Firstly, the singing and acting of Flora Macintosh, who plays Mary. She grows in strength and character throughout the performance and her final aria on her way to the execution block is deeply moving. She clearly is a singer with a big future. Phillipa Boyle as Elizabeth also has a powerful voice although her acting is on this occasion a little static. The rest of the cast give good support. However, the juxtaposition of modern and traditional costumes is at times confusing.
The musical accompaniment with piano, violin and clarinet is a little minimal but the musicians do their best to give backing to Donizetti’s wonderful arias. The well informed and appreciative audience of around 150 in the Younger Hall give a warm response.
Opera Up Close are to be commended for their work in bringing lesser known opera to smaller venues and for bringing it to Scotland. Scottish Opera, of course, do this with what was formerly their Opera-Go-Round programme, although their approach tends to be to make opera more generally appreciated with smaller segments of popular works. Two valuable but in some ways contrasting approaches to accessibility.