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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Maria Stuarda (1835) (sung in English)
Janet Baker (mezzo) Mary Stuart; Rosalind Plowright (soprano) Queen Elizabeth I; David Rendall (tenor) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; John Tomlinson (bass) George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury; Alan Opie (baritone) Sir William Cecil; Angela Bostock (soprano) Hannah Kennedy; Leigh Maurice (singer) Garter King at Arms
Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Charles Mackerras.
Rec. London Coliseum in 1982.
Producer John Copley.
NTSC. 4:3.
WARNER MUSIC VISION 504678028-2 [138'00]

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There is always a temptation to view the past with rose-tinted spectacles. In this case it is well-nigh impossible not to wish one was in the audience experiencing Janet Baker and Rosalind Plowright sparking off each other, while a young John Tomlinson demonstrated his prowess in Donizetti.

But first to the shots of the similarly younger Charles Mackerras, clear and fairly dynamic in the opening measures, and encouraging the clarinetist to make the expressive solos really special. Orchestrally, the opening of Act 2 is impressive, superbly played and with all concerned thoroughly communing with the spirit of Donizetti. Whilst it is true that chorus and orchestra are initially not unanimous, there is plenty of spirit there.

The staging is vintage ENO. Plowright (Queen Elizabeth I) is powdered in make-up and magisterial in voice. Mackerras shades the recitative accompaniments from the very beginning with real sensitivity, yet it is Plowright's aria, 'If fortune one day' that impresses in its slowly impressive dignity. Her presence is huge, and it comes across on DVD in no uncertain fashion. Throughout the opera, Plowright reveals the Queen to be a multi-dimensional, complex character.

Act 2 is set very darkly. It is here Janet Baker gets her chance to shine, and she is absolutely radiant. This is a true reminder of her stature, as she paints a truly psychological portrait of the troubled titular heroine. The exchanges between Mary and the Queen actually represent the performance climax of the DVD, with Plowright at her imperious best. Baker looks as if she is about to explode during the confrontation, and when she explodes her lines are delivered with real venom. Perhaps it is in Act 3 that Baker is at her finest ... or nearly the closing minutes of the opera are unforgettable. The second scene of Act 3 sees her positively dripping sadness, while vocally what impresses most is that her intervals are so pure. Her voice is so free, one gets the impression she could express anything.

Those closing minutes of the opera mentioned above include a prayer from Baker that is truly lovely as all kneel, she floats a line over the ensemble that is unforgettable.

Alan Opie is a persuasive Sir William Cecil, being absolutely believable in his important contributions to Act 3 in his scenes with the Queen. In fact it is the pairings during this opera (Baker/Plowright; Baker/Tomlinson etc) that are the stuff that dreams are made of. That ENO's strength is its company status is a truism that sometimes is used to apologise for the lack of true stars. When those stars are present in tandem with this sense of community - as is the case here - the results are pure magic.

David Rendall's Leicester is on the bleaty side, a reminder perhaps that ENO is not always this good, yet even his game raises inevitably in the very closing stages. Angela Bostock is youthful-looking and excellent. Of course the chorus is marvellous. The recorded sound is remarkably clear and immediate.

Absolutely magnificent, a treasurable document of what must have been a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. And if there is anyone out there who doubts that Donizetti can be a composer of real depth, buy this. It will change your mind.

Colin Clarke

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