Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill St, Wellington

10/08/2012 - 18/08/2012

Production Details


I feel it is only appropriate, as this is a Winter Opera Production, to serve a complimentary dram of WAITUI, a single malt, manuka honey, Golden Bay Whiskey.

This will be served in the Cathedral Foyer, as a warm up, before Maria Stuarda, commences.

LA BELLA ITALIA, the wonderful Italian restaurant of Petone, have decided to add to our celebration of Donizetti, by serving an Italian supper, after the first performance, at 8.30 pm and before our second performance, at 6 pm.

The supper will be served in the CONNOLLY HALL, across the courtyard, from THE CATHEDRAL.

The supper, includes three delicious courses of Italian cuisine served on long tables with a glass of Prosecco to begin. The Italian opera supper  will only be available for 80 diners, so early booking is essential.

You may visit for menu details.
The supper can be booked by emailing 
or ring Miriam on 566 9303 ext. 3

I am delighted to acknowledge and thank Jeremy Commons for his consistent and generous support for our opera.

The Cathedral is very comfortable . Some members of the audience may wish to bring an extra cushion to sit on. I am going to have parking available in the adjacent carpark.

For those of you who have not been inside The Cathedral of Sacred Heart, you are in for a magical experience.

The Cathedral has a most perfect acoustic and enjoys a beautiful interior, as an opera setting, it will be just as remarkable and unique, as the glories of the garden.

August 10th at 6pm and
August 18th at 8pm
The Box Office can be contacted on 0275628272. 
To indulge in the total Donizetti Celebration, book  for the Italian supper on 

Queen Elizabeth: Lisa Harper-Brown
Talbot: Paul Whelan
Robert of Leicester: Ben Fifita Makisi
Lord Cecil: Matt Landreth
Anna: Clarissa Dunn
Mary, Queen of Scots: Rhona Fraser

The Chorus will be performed by The Chapman Trip Opera Chorus of NBR New Zealand Opera 

2 performances only

Battle of the Queens opera well worth reviving

Review by Sharon Talbot 15th Aug 2012

What would Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots have said to each other if they’d ever met … before Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant?! And what would be the result if their confrontation was set to music? The answer is Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda – and predictably dramatic it is! 

This opera of (mostly) imagined history is intriguing for those interested in the Tudor period and enjoyable for fans of the bel canto (‘beautiful singing’)style of operatic music. Congratulations are due to producer (and leading lady!) Rhona Fraser for staging this New Zealand premiere of Donizetti’s rarely performed gem. 

Partly based on Schiller’s play on the ‘battle of the queens’ scenario, the story is set in the period leading up to Elizabeth’s signing of the death warrant for her “sister queen and cousin” in 1587, and ends as Mary is led to execution. Apart from the Queens’ imaginary encounter, the basic story is roughly historical, with the other notable exceptions being the substitution of love for religion as the basis of their animosity and the conflation of the historical Earl of Leicester with Elizabeth’s later favourite, the rebellious Earl of Essex.

Although the opera has six roles, Maria Stuarda is really a two-hander for the rival Queens – and a great showcase for two actress sopranos. Donizetti gave authority and pride to Elizabeth, the ruling Queen of England, through music in turn majestic and fiery. The vulnerable Mary Stuart – rejected as queen by the Scots and imprisoned by her royal cousin after fleeing to England – has lyrical, heartfelt music that reflects her legendary beauty and charm… and ultimate tragedy.

Director Sara Brodie emphasises the contrasts between the two queens by power-dressing Elizabeth in modern trousers and tailored, mannish coats, while Mary appears in graceful Tudor-style gowns of feminine velvets and silk.

Wellington’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is an inspired choice for the type of opera-in-the-round performance that Ms Fraser’s company offers in her home’s historic garden during summer. The acoustic of the Cathedral’s basilica design is ideal for voices (which is why it is used so often for choral concerts), so the experienced cast fill it effortlessly, from wherever they sing.

Brodie makes imaginative use of the Cathedral’s aisles, arches, gallery and pulpit to immerse the audience in the drama. Security men in dark suits prowl the aisles during the overture, and Queen Elizabeth’s entrance through the audience is heralded by a scrum of paparazzi with flashing cameras backing down the main aisle. Her first recitative (sung speech) is given from the pulpit as a press conference to the journalists. This is amusingly apposite given its political content and the venue’s proximity to NZ’s Parliament (across the street) where just such a media event occurs weekly (although the idea of John Key singing… let’s not go there!).

Over-shadowing all the opera’s action is the beautiful high altar of the Cathedral. This is both symbolic and ironic, as the source of Mary and Elizabeth’s rivalry in real life was religious (Mary was the closest Roman Catholic claimant to the protestant Elizabeth’s throne; Mary’s son, the protestant James IV of Scotland, ultimately succeeded Elizabeth as James I of England). However, due to Papal censorship in Italy at the time Donizetti composed this opera (1834), religion could not be subject matter.

Instead, Donizetti’s librettist (Giuseppe Bardari) invented an unlikely love triangle between the two queens and the Earl of Leicester, who is (naturally) a tenor. In this story, Elizabeth loves Leicester (probably true), who is actually courting Mary (not true – that was his stepson, Essex). Mary loves Leicester (most unlikely), and is supported by her faithful lady-in-waiting Anna Kennedy (true).

Mary’s (real life) jailor George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, acts as Mary’s go-between with Leicester, who begs Elizabeth to spare Mary’s life (true, though for political, not personal, reasons). But Elizabeth is finally persuaded to sign the death warrant by her chief minister Cecil, Lord Burleigh (indisputably true), because Mary has been proven as a conspirator in the Babington plot to assassinate Elizabeth (also true – but did Elizabeth’s spy-master Walsingham set her up? This is not the forum for that debate!).

Cecil is played in this production by emerging local singer Matt Landreth. With his warm baritone and clear diction, he projects suitable gravitas despite being rather too young for Elizabeth’s venerable counsellor. Anna is beautifully sung and delightfully acted by another young Wellington singer, Clarissa Dunn.

Tenor Ben Makisi clearly relishes the dramatic potential of the role of Leicester, which suits his powerful, brilliant-toned voice. His reflective duet with Elizabeth in the first scene is beautifully sung but while his struggles with flak-jacketed guards as he tries to protect Mary were suitably valiant, they were at the cost of some timing and tuning at the first performance.

Christchurch-born and now international singer Paul Whelan recently performed with Opera Australia and popped back over the Tasman for this production. His rich bass-baritone voice, superb diction and wide experience makes him luxury casting for Talbot. It is a pity he has to rein in his voice for the ensembles (in which he is mostly supporting others).

Whelan showed the full glory of his voice in the marvellous confession scene in Act II, although he always keeps his voice in proportion to the venue’s size. Along with the Act I confrontation scene between the queens, the other great scene in this opera is the confession between Talbot and Mary after he brings the news of her imminent execution. Whelan’s acting ability and Brodie’s staging gives this scene moments of quasi-religious awe.

The hardworking Rhona Fraser is the ideal voice type and age for Mary. Fraser’s accomplished delivery of Donizetti’s melismatic flourishes in her arias ably express Mary’s sighs and cries as she recalls happy times past and fears for the future. Unfortunately, Fraser’s diction is not clear enough in her recitatives (the storytelling part) for many of her words to be understood, at least from where I was sitting, and some tuning was doubtful.

Since the opera is sung in English (which makes sense for such an intimate production where electronic surtitles would be an intrusion), clarity of diction is vital. As a result, the drama of her confession and pre-execution scenes was diminished for me as I could not hear Mary’s admission of her role in the Babington plot nor her defence of her part in the murder of her second husband, Darnley (the suspicion of which precipitated her ejection from the Scottish throne in favour of her baby son).

Wellington-resident Australian Lisa Harper-Brown is a superb Elizabeth, both vocally and dramatically. Recently heard as one of the ‘Val-kiwis’ in the NZSO’s triumphant concert performances of Wagner’s The Valkyrie, this role could hardly be more different vocally for Harper-Brown, but suits her admirably. Her mezzo-soprano voice makes Elizabeth’s authority emphatic in her dark-toned lower range, while her beautiful upper range and seamless legato makes Elizabeth’s many angry melismatic outbursts dramatically convincing. Harper-Brown’s compelling presence, clear diction and vocal expressivity gives Elizabeth true dignity (when she can be portrayed as a vindictive shrew), and evokes sympathy in her scene with Cecil and Leicester as she struggles with her conscience over signing the death warrant. 

The mostly off-stage chorus is performed by 15 members of the Chapman Tripp NBR New Zealand Opera Chorus. Their singing from the choir gallery is full-toned and adds to the drama, as does their onstage appearance in the final scene as protesters against Mary’s execution. However, their use of scores here rather distracts from the drama and highlights some lack of rehearsal that also shows occasionally in the orchestra.

Maestro Michael Vinten’s arrangement of the score for his nine-piece orchestra works well. As conductor, he marshals his forces admirably, given that the singers are often behind him and frequently moving. The orchestra vigorously supports the singers, though sometimes a little approximately.

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda contains some excellent repertoire that is well worth mining by aspiring opera singers and compilers of opera extracts concerts. And the very talented Sara Brodie’s direction makes it come alive for us. Her most cinematic idea is Mary’s final exit in her (historically accurate) blood-red undergown. She walks to her execution down the entire length of the nave and out the rarely opened great east door of the Cathedral – into a bright light…

The highlight of last Friday’s performance was the queens’ pivotal confrontation scene. Brodie has them hurling insults at each other down the central aisle. The scene opens with a wonderful sextet (one of those frozen moments in bel canto opera that so annoyed Wagner) in which the characters reflect on their feelings about this fraught situation. It was beautifully sung and played on Friday. The second (and final) performance of this production on 18 August is well worth attending for this scene alone! 


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