Singing about Mary: The Story of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda

In the second and final post in our series on ‘Mary and Music’, today’s blog post by Kirsteen McCue, Professor of Scottish Literature & Song Culture and Co-Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies (University of Glasgow) examines Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti’s powerful 1834-5 operatic Maria Stuarda and draws on Tim Duguid’s (Lecturer in Information Studies, University of Glasgow) paper at one of our MQS workshops last year to explore how the opera re-imagines the Queen of Scots for nineteenth-century audiences.

Gaetano Donizetti. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Romantic depictions of Mary in music evolved and were re-imagined through the transmission and translation of poetry and novels in an international context in the nineteenth century. As previously recounted in our last blog post, James Hogg – whose long poem The Queen’s Wake of 1813 focused on Mary’s return to Scotland and imagined a ‘X Factor’-type singing competition– was a close friend and fellow-borderer of the great Walter Scott. Although Scott was not a musical composer, his early nineteenth-century novels were translated into multiple languages for audiences across Europe, including Italy. Scott’s historical narrative poems and novels would inspire a generation of Italian operatic composers across the central decades of the nineteenth century. One might be forgiven for thinking that Scott’s novel The Abbott of 1820 would have provided the basic storyline for Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, which he was working on at the same time as Lucia di Lammermuir (based on Scott’s Bride of Lammermuir of 1819). But instead, Donizetti’s inspiration was Friedrich Schiller’s, by then, famous 1800 play turned into an operatic libretto by Giuseppe Bardari. It’s most likely that Donizetti would have known Schiller’s play through Andrea Maffai’s 1830 translation.

In his paper on musical depictions of Mary at our MQS workshop, Tim Duguid rightly pointed out that Donizetti was not the first opera composer to pick up the story of the Scottish Queen; Pietro Casella’s Maria Stuarda was one of the first operas on the subject. However, this opera gained little traction after its Venetian premiere in 1812. It was followed by Pasquale Sogner’s opera based on Mary’s story just two years later, but this resulted in a political backlash from the Venetian leadership. Others would quickly follow, including those by Saverio Mercadante, Luigi Carlini, and Carlo Coccia. It was be Coccia’s version, written while he was in London and first performed there in June 1827, that would become a template for Donizetti. But more operas about Mary were to follow from Fétis, Neidermeyer, Puccini, and Rossini, among others.

The Schiller play that was the basis for the Bardari/Donizetti libretto already sets up paired roles for rival prima donnas and the character of Leicester provides the ideal love triangle required for the medium of opera. The central fictional encounter between the two queens – what’s now known as the ‘Dialogo delle due regine’ (conversation of the two queens) – is ideal fodder for the climactic scene of the opera.

Mary’s aria in Act 1 scene 2 (when we meet her for the first time in the opera) hearkens back, in some senses, to Robert Burns’s lament, with a pastoral setting (the garden of Fotheringay Castle) and orchestral bird song introduction. Mary laments her captivity and exile and fondly reminisces about her French childhood.

MARIA STUARDA, Donizetti + Backstage – Antonacci, Devia, Meli – La Scala, 2008. English subtitles – YouTube. See 43’20 to 46’25 for Mary’s aria.

In contrast to James Hogg’s depiction of Mary across her first three nights back in Scotland, Donizetti’s opera cuts out elements of Schiller’s drama and focusses only on the very final days of Mary’s life and her dramatic end. But the drama of Mary’s life was nothing in comparison to the censoring of Donizetti’s opera! 

Even with the changes to Schiller’s long original, Bardari’s libretto with Donizetti’s music was hugely problematic for the Genoese censors. The King of Naples intervened during rehearsals in Genoa in 1834 and the production was pulled. The censors confessed that the element that had tipped them over the edge was Maria’s charge of illegitimacy against Elizabeth (‘vil bastarda’), a climactic moment of vocal fireworks between these feisty leading sopranos.

MARIA STUARDA, Donizetti + Backstage – Antonacci, Devia, Meli – La Scala, 2008. English subtitles – YouTube (scene with Elizabeth and Mary begins 1.01.00 – the moment referred to is around 1.09.00)
María Cristina de Borbón-Dos Sicilias, reina de España. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Anecdotally the rumour spread that the opera was banned because Queen Maria Cristina attended the dress rehearsal and fainted when Maria Stuarda was led away to be beheaded, though there is no evidence to back this up. The opera was performed at La Scala, Milan on 30 December 1835, but was then banned again during the opening run. As great opera scholar William Ashbrook has stated (Donizetti and his Operas, 1982), there are only a handful of performances in the nineteenth century. It is then only after World War II that the opera finally finds its place as a regular feature in the world’s major opera houses. Of Donizetti’s early operas, this is the one in which he gets most involved with his subject. It is clear from his score that Donizetti connects directly with the figure of Mary: he combines a lyrical tenderness with Mary’s notorious tenacity and feistiness, providing a score of memorable vocal pyrotechnics for the coloratura soprano heroine. Mary’s story is tragic, but she goes to the block in defiance, and there’s no doubting the power of his final scene, which combines all of these characteristics.

MARIA STUARDA, Donizetti + Backstage – Antonacci, Devia, Meli – La Scala, 2008. English subtitles – YouTube the final scene runs from 1 hr 46 mins in: from 2 hrs 08 mins is the final slow aria followed by the finale….)
Joyce DiDonato, operatic Maria of the moment. Images from the Metropolitan Opera production in New York 2012.
Joyce DiDonato, operatic Maria of the moment. Images from the Metropolitan Opera production in New York 2012.

The influence of Donizetti’s opera even stretches to our own time. In his workshop paper, Tim Duguid made a lovely comparison between the opera and Max Richter’s score for the recent Josie Rourke directed 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots.

Featurette between Max Richter and Josie Rourke discussing the score for “Mary Queen of Scots” (2018)
Clip from “Mary Queen of Scots” (2018) Meeting between Mary and Elizabeth Queen Elizabeth I of England

Like the Donizetti opera, it also includes a fictional ‘Dialogo delle due regine’ (a conversation of the two Queens). Tim notes that, even though the stories are similar, the two composers do quite different things at this point in the drama.  Richter uses little musical accompaniment and silence adds to the tension and importance of the scene, with just a melody for cellos and basses recalling the beginning of the film. Like Richter, Donizetti begins the scene with a simple texture: a double aria between Mary and Leicester that is eminently lyrical and almost impossibly delicate. Then he begins to build textures and tension by adding more voices. Cecil and Talbot act as the proverbial devil and angel sitting on Elizabeth’s shoulders and chirping in her ears until the scene reaches its climax. Mary then shouts her invective at Elizabeth, and the latter storms off the stage, leaving the audience hanging and demanding that they stay through the intermission to see what happens in the second act.

Tim points out that both artistic translations move directly to Elizabeth’s signing of the death warrant for Mary. But it’s characteristic of both media and moments in time, perhaps, that the events thereafter leading to Mary’s death take a good hour for Donizetti and a mere ten minutes for Richter!

Richter’s score brings us musically up to date, but it’s clear that our three Romantic musical depictions of Mary are quite diverse: from the poignant and soul-searching Mary of Burns’s lament, and the compromised yet generous X-factor judge of Hogg’s Queen’s Wake, to the powerful monarch who speaks her mind and goes to her death defiantly (and on a stratospheric top D!) in Donizetti’s opera! Mary’s story lends itself supremely well to musical and theatrical re-imaginings of many different hues and they continue to capture 21st century audiences.

Thank you to Tim Duguid for allowing us to pinch some of his findings for this blog!

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