Opera Bel Canto's founder, Micaele Sparacino, is an enthusiastic proponent of Gaetano Donizetti's operas. On Sunday afternoon he led his company in the Washington concert premiere of a new critical edition of "Maria Stuarda," sung in English translation, at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.

Written in 1834, "Maria Stuarda" was banned in Italy during Donizetti's lifetime because it contained some objectionable language. Those offending words (not as scandalous today) are found in the opera's central act, during a confrontational meeting between the eponymous Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I. Though the libretto may not impact audiences as powerfully as before, the opera's affecting music continues to reign.

In the title role, soprano Debra Lawrence sent her muscular voice soaring above the full ensemble's volumes, but it was her poignant, subdued singing in the upper range that made a bigger impression.

Donna Darden's fluid soprano was perhaps too sweet for Elizabeth, but her dramatics emerged with the help of John Day's passionate Earl of Leicester.

Of the cast, Day sang with the best stage presence, often engaging the other performers.

Michael Galizia's commanding bass and clear diction gave Cecil persuasive power. Baritone Matthew Osifchin, though afflicted with laryngitis, produced a large, effective sound in the role of Talbot. As Mary's handmaid, Hannah, soprano Malinda Dix-Hunt sculpted smooth and athletic phrases.

The performance would have benefited from one more rehearsal -- there were a few tempo discrepancies and entrance mishaps that could have been avoided.

"Maria Stuarda" repeats on Sunday.

-- Grace Jean

Malinda Dix-Hunt, Debra Lawrence, John Day and Donna Darden in Opera Bel Canto's production of "Mary Stuart."