Mary, Queen of Scots

Donizetti and Mary, Queen of Scots [Maria Stuarda]

In the spring of 1834 Donizetti was approached by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples to produce a new opera. Donizetti had traversed subjects from English history prior to this point, most notably in Anna Bolena of 1830 and Il Castello di Kenilworth in 1829. He was to return again, of course, in Roberto Devereux in 1837. Having seen Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart in Italian translation in Milan he was predisposed to tackle the subject, not only because of its historical atmospherics but because of the inherent drama enveloping the central action of the confrontation between Elizabeth I and her Scottish cousin, Mary Stuart. (There is no evidence that such a meeting ever actually occurred.)

The composer had hoped for a libretto from Felice Romani, but Romani’s lack of response left him to turn to the young (17 years old!) untried poet, Giuseppe Bardari who is credited with nothing further in the Italian operatic oeuvre. (He later became a judge and the Prefect of Police in Naples. One assumes that his legal responsibilities made it impossible to work with another composer, or even Donizetti, again!) Rehearsals for the opera began in Naples during the month of September, Donizetti having spent the summer composing and orchestrating the score. But, as often happened in these times, the royal censors of the King of Naples took umbrage with the central confrontation in which Mary spits out at Elizabeth, “vil bastarda!” It certainly didn’t help that Queen Maria Cristina was an actual descendant of the Queen of Scots. The opera was banned from Naples after the dress rehearsal.

[An interesting confrontation took place between the two leading ladies during one of the rehearsals. Soprano Giuseppina Ronzi di Begnis was singing the role of Maria, and soprano Anne del Serre the role of Elisabetta. Di Begnis uttered such a committed “vil bastarda” that del Serre took it as a personal insult and the two divas came to blows! Poor del Serre was carried off in a faint.]

In order to salvage the rehearsal time as well as the work itself, Maria Stuarda quickly became Buondelmonte, a tale of fifteenth century Florence, and the revised piece opened on October 18, 1834. Donizetti was not happy with the forced revisions and, determined to bring Maria Stuarda to permanent life, remounted it for the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in December, 1835. The superstar Maria Malibran took the title role and incited a scandal by ignoring edits demanded by the Milanese censors (again, “vil bastarda”!) until finally, after six performances, the opera was removed from production. The opera virtually disappeared from the repertoire [after its return to Naples in 1865 as Maria Stuarda rather than Buondelmonte] until 1958 when it was revived by conductor Oliviero de Fabritiis at the Teatro Donizetti in Bergamo, Italy. The career of American soprano Beverly Sills went a long way in establishing the opera as one of Donizetti’s true gems, invigorating New York Opera fans to wait with great anticipation of her singing any of the composer’s three ‘Queen’ operas: Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux and Anna Bolena.

The Music of Mary, Queen of Scots [Maria Stuarda]

Maria: Wanton daughter of Anne Boleyn…
Is it you speaking of dishonor?
Obscene, unworthy prostitute,
I blush for you.
The English throne is sullied,
Vile bastard,
By your foot!

Elisabetta: Go, prepare yourself, raving creature,
To suffer your final fate;
On your hateful head
I will heap shame!
Drag away that raving creature
Who has condemned herself!

What 19th century Italian composer could resist such strong, overwrought language in a confrontation between two great ladies? The above moment comes at the end of Act II within the context of an ensemble scene which was meant to show off the lyric and dramatic gifts of Donizetti’s original dive, soprano Giuseppina Ronzi di Begnis and soprano Anne del Serre. Being both sopranos…with contrasting gifts…they were natural competitors and sparks flew at many of the rehearsals. But what a fascinating compositional choice: to write these two monumental roles as sopranos rather than as contrasting voice types, soprano and mezzo-soprano. This assignment of roles meant further choices in the building of ensembles, and the second act sextet, “È sempre la stessa”, is a case in point, an unusual combination of two sopranos (Maria and Elisabetta), mezzo-soprano (Anna), tenor (Leicester) and two baritones (Cecil and Talbot). [Contemporary casting will occasionally result in Elisabetta, much of whose role lies in the middle of the voice, being a mezzo-soprano so that the two ladies’ characters are distinguished through vocal color. That will be the case in our San Diego Opera production.]

The usual hallmarks of Donizetti’s bel canto style are in ample evidence here: long phrased, elegant melodies, an attempt to define scenic atmosphere through orchestral means, sensitive word painting, double-arias for all of the principal singers, and an attempt to characterize important roles through purely musical means. Listen to the opening of the final scene (introduction and chorus “Vedesta? Vedemmo. O truce apparato.”) and you will hear no finer example of operatic scene setting from the bel canto era. The orchestral texture of the introduction, featuring horns to delineate the melody, perfectly and simply captures the mood of Mary’s supporters as they face her imminent execution. The chorus itself, with its sustained melody over triplet figures in the accompaniment is a forerunner of choruses like “Va pensiero” in Verdi’s Nabucco. In terms of pure word painting, one need go no further than Mary’s cavatina “O nube che lieve per l’aria” (“Oh cloud that wanders light upon the breeze”) and its consistently ascending vocal line which describes her inner thoughts as they take her back to her homeland in spirit.

One of the more interesting aspects of Donizetti’s genius (and something that Verdi would capitalize later on) is his use of rhythm to delineate character in ensembles. In the first act duet between Leicester and Elisabetta, especially in the central section “Era d’amor l’immagine”, the tenor’s vocal line (marked dolcissimo, ‘as sweetly as possible’) is markedly different than the soprano’s angular and strongly dotted retorts. This underlines Leicester’s description of the pitiful Mary (“seeming an angel from above, charming everyone who saw her”) and Elisabetta’s ironic responses (“She is angelic, or else she would not merit your commendation. Who else in prison could still retain such a degree of fascination?  I know that her cajolery entices men to her snare!”) Something similar happens in the confrontation between the two ladies in Act II, wherein Mary’s lines begin the scene after the sextet with short, lyrical utterances, while Elisabetta ‘ups the ante’ with more and more regal pronouncements until Mary’s lines match her counterpart’s in declamatory strength and sheer nobility of character.  Neither lady ‘wins’, nor does Donizetti want that…this is a confrontation between two equals that ends in a stalemate vocally and dramatically. It is not until the tragic end of the opera that the music tells us that Mary is ultimately resigned to her fate, going to her death certainly with sadness but with great dignity as well.

The Source of Mary, Queen of Scots [Maria Stuarda]

The immediate literary source of Maria Stuarda was Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart, one of the playwright’s sprawling historical epics which focused on the fascinating mix of religion and politics at play during the time of Elizabeth. Much of the play is pure fiction, of course, as there was never an actual meeting between the two monarchs. But it makes for great theatre and the play is occasionally revived even today. The librettist Giuseppe Bardari took great liberties with the play, essentially treating it as a mere skeleton upon which to throw some Italian operatic flesh. For instance, he took the number of characters down to six from twenty-one, and from five acts (and fifty-two scenes!) to three. But the center of the drama was the conflict between Elizabeth and Mary, and that conflict is amplified by the addition of Donizetti’s wonderful music.

The true source of Maria Stuarda is, of course, the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. Born of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise in 1542, her father died seven days after her birth and she was crowned Queen the following year, with her mother eventually named as regent. The Stuarts were a Catholic house and received a considerable amount of political support from France where Francis I reigned (essentially a contemporary of Henry VIII, who’s Queen Anne Boleyn gave birth to Elizabeth I in1533). Upon the death of the French King his son, Henry II, became King and the young Mary was betrothed to his son the Dauphin, Francis. Mary’s mother sent her to France in 1548 for her protection and Mary was not to return to Scotland until 1561. By that time her father-in-law Henry had died and, a year later in 1560, her husband as well. Her mother died in the same year (this truly must have been an annus horribilis!) and she returned to Scotland as Queen.

Perhaps capriciously, Elizabeth attempted to marry her cousin Mary to Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, who himself was romantically connected to the English Queen for many years. But in 1565 Mary married her cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and gave birth to her only child, James (later King of England and Scotland) in 1566. The following year her very unpopular husband was murdered and under duress she married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Suspicion arose of her having been involved in his murder, and she was arrested and placed under guard at Lochleven Castle. At that point her one year old son was named James VI of Scotland.

Mary eventually escaped from Lochleven and fled to England, hoping for protection from her cousin Elizabeth. But from 1568-1587 she was held in various English prisons, always dependent upon Elizabeth’s political or religious temperature at any given time. For the Protestant Elizabeth to seem to be gracious to her Catholic cousin was a dangerous move and the English queen kept a decision at bay as long as she could. Eventually, however, Mary was accused of plotting against the life of Elizabeth, tried and then finally executed at Fotheringay Castle in 1587. On Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Mary’s son James became James I of Scotland and England, and he moved his mother’s remains to Westminster Abbey.

The historical events depicted in the opera (and the play) are, in some cases, many years apart in actuality, and most of the drama is pure fiction. There was most certainly not a personal struggle between the two queens over the Earl of Leicester which becomes an important factor in the drama. The two queens also never met in real life, but one can imagine the fireworks, recriminations, accusations and political intrigue that might have occurred if they had. It was this juicy possibility, and the fact that it was always whispered that they did indeed meet while on a hunting party at Fotheringay, that fueled both Schiller’s play and Donizetti’s opera.

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