left hand side border Maria Stuarda right
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Mary and Dudley
By kind permission of the
English Touring Opera
An Opera in three acts, composed in 1834 Elizabeth
By kind permission of the
English Touring Opera
Music by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Giuseppe Bardari, from the play Maria Stuart by
Friedrich von Schiller.

Synopsis

Act I - morning, Westminster

Her courtiers want Elizabeth I to marry a French prince, and to have a son. She pretends to be willing. Privately, she yearns to follow her heart and marry Robert, Earl of Leicester, but his scandalous past prevents her from doing so.

As her counsellor, Cecil urges her to provide an heir. Another prominent courtier, Talbot, urges her to take pity on her cousin and heir presumptive, Mary Stuart, the dethroned Queen of Scotland. Elizabeth shares neither Cecil's Protestant abhorrence of Mary, not the ardour of Talbot, Mary's 'gaoler' - but she has no intention of letting Mary Stuart out of her power.

Elizabeth gives Leicester a ring to take as token of betrothal to the French prince; when Leicester shows no emotion, she is wounded.

Talbot confides to Leicester that he bears him two tokens from Mary Stuart: a portrait, and a letter for him to deliver to Elizabeth. Ironically, Elizabeth has once unsuccessfully tried to wed her disreputable favourite to Mary. Now Leicester's earlier love for Mary is rekindled, and he pledges to secure her freedom. Elizabeth interrogates Leicester, who shows her the letter and then guilelessly confesses his admiration for Mary. The letter begs a meeting. To please Leicester she agrees to it, though she is less inclined to free Mary than ever.

For the second time this morning, she sends Leicester ahead with a message that conceals her true intentions

Act II - later that day, the park at Fotheringay

Mary recalls the happy days of her youth in France, when she was crowned Catholic Queen of France, England and Scotland. AT the unexpected approach of Elizabeth's hunting party, she becomes agitated; her companion Hannah urges her to flee, but Leicester arrives and persuades her to be submissive towards Elizabeth, swearing to extract vengeance for Mary if the English Queen will not help her.

Mary humbles herself before her cousin, but Elizabeth accuses her of treachery, murder and adultery. This is too much for the proud Queen of Scots, and she hurls at Elizabeth the most effective insults she can think of - that she is a wanton and a bastard. Her cause is lost; Elizabeth condemns her.

Act III - years later, Westminster and then Fotheringay

Elizabeth cannot decide to sign the death warrant of Mary, like her an anointed Queen and a vulnerable woman. At Cecil's insistence that it is the only way to bring peace to her realm she signs but does not seal the warrant. It is the appearance of Leicester, who she suspects is Mary's lover, that resolves her; she orders him to witness Mary's execution.

Mary hears her sentence from Cecil. She is shocked that one daughter of the Tudors would execute another. She confesses her sins to Talbot, who has revealed himself as a Catholic priest.

Mary's sympathisers are grief stricken. Hannah tries to quiet them, but it is Mary, now composed, who leads them in a moving prayer to God. At the first of three cannon shots, Cecil returns with the offer of a last wish; Mary asks that Hannah accompany her to teh scaffold, and she also asks Cecil to take her pardon and blessing to Elizabeth. At the second cannon shot Leicester arrives, furious. At the third shot she walks dignified to her death.

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Historical Note

Maria Stuarda brings to life the dynastic and personal conflict between the dethroned Scottish Queen and Elizabeth I. In close to 25 years of political excile, Mary made desperate attempts to meet with her royal cousin and jailer, hoping for a peaceful resolution to their rivalry. Although planned many times, the meeting never occurred and both Queens were left to the political squabbling and 'briefing against' of their courts.

Donizetti composed Maria Stuarda in 1834, at the height of his long and prolific career. The action opens in England in 1567. Mary has been removed from the Scottish throne following a series of complicated intrigues, and has been obliged to ask Elizabeth I for asylum, thus becoming her prisoner. Over the next 20 years, numerous Catholic conspiracies aiming to put Mary on the English throne culminated in her supposed involvement in the Babington plot which, in effect, singed her death warrant. Mary was executed at Fotheringay Castle on 8th February 1587

I am no historian, and so rather than wax lyrical on these two Queens, I offer the following biographies:

Whilst in real life the two queens never met in person, in Maria Stuarda we witness a fictional confrontation between these two queens in the grounds of Fotheringay castle - and it's certainly an eventful meeting, with the two queens doing their best to mortally offend each other. When the opera was orginally staged, the on-stage rivalry between the prima donnas cast as Mary and Elizabeth (Giuseppina Roniz di Begins and Anna del Sere) apparently extended to their personal lives. In the Fotheringay forest confrontation scene when Mary denounces Elizabeth as a prostitute nad a bastard the reports were that Roniz di Begins did it with such enthusiasm that del Sere resorted to physical violence.

Unfortunately, the opera's problems were only just beginning. The reinging King and Queen of Naples at the time were not onluy descended from Mary Stuart (and thus not exactly eager to have their family's dirty laundry aired in public) but were also hostile to public entertainment and only liked theatre with happy endings! A day before the opening night the production was banned. Donizetti later salvaged his music for Maria with an extensively altered libretto and the action switched to the times of the Guelfs and Ghibellines. This opera, now called Buondelmonte, opened in Naples in October 1834.

It was Maria Malibran who renewed interest in Maria Stuarda twenty years later, however as she insieted on ignoring all the censor's changes, it was once again banned by local authorites in La Scala. It is thanks to the discovery of a missing autograph in Sweeden that it was possible to stage a more authentic version of the opera in Bergamno in 1989

Personal Note

I first saw this opera on the Spring 2005 Tour of the English Touring Opera. I found it to be an wonderfully emotional opera, and the dignified exit of Mary left me in tears. Once again, the ETO produced a wonderfully visual and rich staging, albeit a brave one with two levels of stage!

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