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Mary, Queen of Scots review at the Old Church, London – ‘a thrilling, up-close encounter’

Flora McIntosh and Emma Watkinson in OperaUpClose's Mary Queen of Scots. Photo: Andreas Grieger
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Fittingly, OperaUpClose’s new touring production of Mary, Queen of Scots opened in London’s only surviving Elizabethan church, its simple nave transformed into a theatre by means of a catwalk covered in a mirrored dance floor that reflects the beams and stonework. Two scaffold-like structures provide the lighting rig, and the tiny ensemble, led by Paul McKenzie on piano, is hidden in the chapel.

This blazing Donizetti drama marks the company’s 10th anniversary. In 2009, it performed La Bohème in a Kilburn pub and has since given 500 performances in various venues. The premise never changes – to provide opportunities for people to experience opera in their lives – and, in small venues, the experience is intensified. Sitting just feet away from singers trained to reach the back of an opera house can be thrilling, especially with powerhouse voices such as those of Philippa Boyle (Queen Elizabeth) and Flora McIntosh (Mary), but it can be aurally overwhelming until you get used to it.

Mary, Queen of Scots revolves around a fictional – and disastrous – meeting between the two women, and the focus switches from the imperious Elizabeth to Mary, who claims victory by facing her death with courage. Boyle’s impressive soprano, laser-like in accuracy and attack, matches the warmer but no less punchy mezzo of McIntosh. Together, they reign supreme, with the support of Emma Watkinson as Anna.

The men – Cecil (Jan Capinski), Talbot (Julian Debreuil) and even the ‘hero’ Leicester, sung with puppyish enthusiasm by tenor Cliff Zammit Stevens – are eclipsed by the two queens.

Director and librettist Robin Norton-Hale draws fine dramatic performances from the six-strong cast and makes the most of this atmospheric venue.

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Verdict
Thrilling, up-close encounter with two big operatic voices
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