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Exquisite agony: 'Mary Stuart' at Minnesota Opera, and a wild night at the St. Paul Grill

Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart
Photo by Michal Daniel
Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart

Ah, the pleasures of opera. Where else can we find so much bombast, so much expense, and so much genius put to the service of telling stories of such trashy human behavior?  Let's take Donizetti's "Mary Stuart" as an example, as it's what the Minnesota Opera currently has to offer. Ostensibly, it's about her execution at the hands of Elizabeth I, and the book of the opera makes a great show of the religious devotion of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the torment of her final hours.
But, truthfully, the story told here is about two petty women, a love triangle, and one epic catfight. Historically, the two probably never met, although Mary Stuart did allegedly participate in three plots to assassinate Elizabeth. But Gaetano Donizetti knew that it's much more fun, dramatically speaking, to get the two women alone in a room together and see what happens — a dramatic invention of playwright Friedrich von Schiller, whose work this opera is based on, which has been followed by almost everybody who has told this tale since. And Donizetti doesn't hold back: The two women call each other whores and one decides to kill the other. The play is notorious for having been repeatedly banned, and also for the fact that the two original performers playing the dueling queens actually had a fistfight during rehearsal.

Although, in truth, this all makes "Mary Stuart" sound a great deal more deranged than it is — the second act is entirely about Mary Stuart's preparations for death, which turns into a sort of makeshift Catholic ritual. It is, at times, a bit delirious, and it's gets weirdly ahistoric — the entire chorus of the show ends it by declaring that Stuart died innocent, which is a puzzling thing to claim about a woman — her life sometimes seems like it's nothing but one murder or conspiracy to murder after another that she is implicated in, including the death of her husband Lord Darnley. His house blew up, which happens sometimes. However, it wasn't the explosion that killed him. He was found strangled in the garden.
The opera gets a lovely and lively staging from Minnesota Opera, featuring an ingeniously stripped-down set. In the first act, each queen is represented by a rolling staircase: Elizabeth's is made of ornate carved wood, while Mary Stuart's is fashioned from what look to be prison bars. Above them is a huge wooden ceiling, and this is designed a bit like one of those toys where a child must hammer a shape through a hole — parts of the ceiling will descend, forming impromtu walls. The back of the theater has a scrim that rises and falls, revealing a backdrop that changes color based on the mood of the story — and when it gets really frantic, the backdrop turns crimson red.
This is a Bel Canto opera, which the Minnesota Opera specializes in, and that means there is very little stage action (it pretty much can be summed up as follows: Elizabeth signs a piece of paper, Mary flings it to the ground, and I don't believe the latter action is even specified in the original libretto). Almost all of the action happens off stage, and then the characters come in and sing about their emotional reactions to it, in as pretty a way as possible. So the success of the performance relies on singers who can both handle the extraordinary music (and Donizatti had to repeatedly fight back against performers who wanted his score simplified) and can communicate the heightened emotions of the play, which the libretto addresses quite nakedly. This is an opera in which everybody states exactly what they are feeling at the moment they feel it.
Both Judith Howarth, who plays Mary Stuart, and Brenda Harris, who plays Elizabeth, are perfectly capable of looking really tormented onstage while producing absolutely exquisite singing. Opera has always been about spectacle, but Donizatti relocates it away from such typically explosive stage moments as sword fights or hauntings or romantic embraces and replaces it with the spectacle of women suffering. There's a certain perversity that Donizatti apparently finds this to be exquisite, and its what saves the second act from merely being a religious ritual. Its not so much about Mary Stuart finding absolution in the eyes of God; it's about how beautifully agonized she is in her final moments.

Black Hat Collective members draw the opera
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Black Hat Collective members draw the opera

I should state for the record that I saw the final dress rehearsal, although I don't expect much will change between last night and this. And I went because the Minnesota Opera had invited the Black Hat Collective, a local group of comic book artists. They surrounded me in the dark of the theater, vellum paper before them, lit with little personalized lights, and drew continuously through the performance. I will be curious to see some of the illustrations that the evening produced. It seems to me that comic art is uniquely suited to representing opera, which, if simply reproduced as an accurate illustration, is likely to look like a bunch of people in old costumes standing around on a stage. But comic art is an expressive form given to abstracting the literal world in favor of representing action and emotion. You may not be able to hear the music, but a good cartoon of the show should give you a sense of its delirious agony.

Kaiser Putsy at the St. Paul Grill
MinnPost/Max Sparber
Kaiser Putsy at the St. Paul Grill

The Ordway wasn't the only place in St. Paul that got a bit overwrought last night. After the show, we went across the street to the St. Paul Grill for a cocktail, and it was positively balmy in there thanks to the St. Paul Winter Carnival. Every few minutes, another man in an absurd costume would come in — there was a fellow dressed in a picador's uniform, and another who had a gold luchador's mask that he would occasionally don, and an ongoing collection of men dressed a bit like Captain Merrill Stubing. A man dressed like Otto Von Bismarck with a  mustache-and-sideburn combination, who introduced himself as Kaiser Putsy, would occasionally break out into drinking songs. Later, a genial fellow with a Stanley Cup ring graciously allowed me and my companions to try it on and take photographs, and later still Brenda Harris, who played Elizabeth, came in looking badly in need of a drink, and who can blame her?

Max models a Stanley Cup ring
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Max models a Stanley Cup ring

What did I drink? A Moscow Mule, which is the first and one of the best vodka cocktails, made with ginger beer and lime. The St. Paul Grill makes it strong — the ginger and lime flavors are quite potent — and serves it in a copper glass, as was done in the original Cock 'n' Bull Tavern, where the drink was invented. As a result, it stays cool almost forever. It was the only thing last night that could make that claim.

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Comments (3)

I believe you've mis-identified the first picture: The female looks an awful lot like Brenda Harris.

She does, but I was at the tech rehearsal, and Mary (Judith) had on a black dress with a cross necklace and a wig like this. Elizabeth's dress was more colorful (she wasn't the prisoner . . . ).

I wonder if the invitation to the Black Hat Cooperative was a suggestion of incoming President Allan Naplan. He did some innovative things at Madison Opera like having local bloggers blog before/during a performance.

Mr. Naplan is indeed innovative, as is Minnesota Opera. The pairing promises to be quite fruitful. Black Hat Cooperative approached Minnesota Opera's Tempo program (incidentally, part of MinnPost's YPN) with the idea that led to the invitation to the final dress rehearsal for "Mary Stuart." The illustrations will be available on Tempo's blog -- -- later this week.