Mary, Queen of Scots

Jodi Burns (left) is Mary, and Yulia Lysenko is Elizabeth in Piedmont Opera’s “Mary, Queen of Scots.”

Two queens, one kingdom, and a universe of scheming courtiers make Gaetano Donizetti’s “Mary, Queen of Scots” not only sonically gorgeous but also a political thriller.

I tried to watch the performance as if I didn’t know how it would end. And, really, for about a minute, you can imagine it will go in Mary’s favor. Her beauty, her charm and her girlishness appeal to so many.

But the day and the play belong to Elizabeth, who draws on a superhuman strength of will to find the capacity to govern an unruly court and country.

From her first, goose-bump-inducing note, Yulia Lysenko owns the role of Elizabeth. Lysenko’s vocal power, honeyed and capacious, is an apt metaphor for Elizabeth’s earthly power. The person she most seeks to rule is herself. She may have armies at her command, but her greatest challenge is the governance of her human desires — for love, security and acceptance.

Jodi Burns, her voice particularly crystalline in the role of Elizabeth, conveys Mary’s more conventionally feminine appeal. She is a damsel in distress, though not a particularly willing one. The quality/flaw in herself that she cannot govern is her pride. Mary believes that by virtue of her Catholicism (the one true faith) and her royal line, she has as much claim to the throne as Elizabeth does.

Both women are alternately courted and plagued by ambitious men. Both are suspicious, angry and disappointed.

Vocally, Lysenko owns the first act, Burns owns the second act, and their sonic showdown at the end of Act I is simply dazzling.

The opera opens on a note of ostensibly happy anticipation: Elizabeth is expected to accept the marriage proposal of a French nobleman, but she stalls, hoping for a declaration of love from Robert, Earl of Leicester, sweetly sung by Kirk Dougherty.

Instead, the clueless Leicester takes up a defense of Mary, Elizabeth’s sworn enemy, and persuades Elizabeth to meet with Mary in Fotheringhay Castle where Mary is a political prisoner. Public sentiment has gone against Mary, because two of her husbands were killed in suspicious circumstances; then she was tricked into joining a rebellion against Elizabeth.

The lovelorn and optimistic Leicester believes that if the two meet, Mary will charm Elizabeth as she does everyone, but he fails to take Mary’s temper into consideration, and the diplomatic mission falls apart.

Both Burns and Lysenko had starring roles in Piedmont Opera’s last season. Burns, a UNC School of the Arts Fletcher Opera Institute alumna, sang Adina in another Donizetti opera, “Elixir of Love.” Lysenko, a Ukraine-trained singer, was Mimi in Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme.”

It was especially fun to watch Lysenko play the ravenous Queen of England after the delicate, fading Mimi. And equally fun to see and hear Burns grow from the somewhat diffident Mary of Act I to the triumphant martyr in Act II.

Jonathan Hayes performs the role of Talbot, an adviser to Elizabeth, who has a tender duet with Mary as she convinces him belatedly of her innocence. Dan Boye is Elizabeth’s adviser Lord William Cecil. Brennan Martinez is lovely in the role of Hannah, Mary’s loyal attendant.

James Allbritten conducts a lush-sounding orchestra. Steve LaCosse is the stage director. Fairly unusual for Piedmont Opera are the original sets and costumes, which should be mentioned.

The lush costumes pop out against the spare but effective scenery. Luminous figures emerge from the blackness of the background in a painterly way that suggests Rembrandt or another Dutch Master. Act II, Scene 2 is especially affecting, as Mary sits at a writing desk and a large, carved cross hovers upstage right.

Mary’s and the men’s costumes are moody studies in shades of gray, white and black. Elizabeth’s costumes are gorgeous, from white and gold in court to a dashing green velvet riding outfit.

The costumes are by Kathy Grillo, scenic design by Howard C. Jones and lighting by Liz Stewart.

The end, which we know is coming, is still effectively dramatic. And Burns had it right in an earlier interview: Even if you know the story, you need to hear how the Italians tell it — full of beautiful music and passionate intensity.

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