England’s woman leader is in power, but only just. Surrounded by plotters and schemers, with a female rival from Scotland attracting growing support, she sees her only way as being unbending – any sign of weakness will be an excuse to topple her. But that very rigidity is exploited by supposed friends, whose only real ambition is to take power for themselves. Deceiving and deceived, they profess loyalty while fomenting its opposite. Sounds familiar?
This is the England of Elizabeth I – Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, as Rossini and his librettist saw her. In this version of history, the Earl of Leicester is the good guy, refusing Elizabeth’s amorous advances because he’s already secretly married (and thus incurring her passionate wrath, as his wife is Mathilde, daughter of Mary Queen of Scots). The Duke of Norfolk is a lying toad, trying to manoeuvre Leicester to his death, then, once found out, seeking to encourage popular rebellion against Elizabeth – which Leicester nobly rejects.
So you have four main roles, one of which – Elizabeth – is easily the biggest. You also have – and this is such a surprise that the English surtitles reassure us we have come on the right night about three minutes in – the overture we know as that of The Barber of Seville.
How so? Well, Rossini thought it was so good he named it thrice, and this is the second show he stuck it on, Barber being the third. This one has a certain right to it, though, as a snatch of its final crescendo is worked into the Act One finale, which is another surprise.
It’s a good night in the theatre. Director James Conway presents it in period, with simple sets that evoke its time and place and provide a minimum of structure for scenes that include a throne room and a dungeon – but they’re enough. Rory Beaton’s lighting ekes out any imperfections. Designer Frankie Bradshaw clothes the chorus in black but recognisably Elizabethan garb. (I could see why they hung around in geometrical formats much of the time – court life in those days was a public business, after all. But in the dungeon scene…?)
Mary Plazas is the star. She’s a Buxton favourite already, having brilliantly sung major roles in the festival here in recent years, and again she gives both technical coloratura excellence and lovely tone over a wide tessitura, and also an intelligent and moving characterisation of her role.
Lucy Hall has an important secunda donna part as Mathilde, and she is outstandingly good to hear and well into character, too – the confrontation scene that opens Act Two was remarkably powerful. Luciano Botelho (Leicester) made a fine fist of his heroic role, and John-Colyn Gyeantey, after a rather rough start, warmed into being the nasty Norfolk in time for his best scene, a second confrontation duet.
The ETO chorus again sang magnificently, and John Andrews conducted the score with a sure and imaginative touch. There's a rawness and energy in this early Rossini – voices pitted against screaming piccolo and braying trombone in a way that Verdi was later criticised for – that is genuinely exciting.
Mary Plazas as Elizabeth I. Picture: Richard Hubert Smith