Mary Stuart has a somewhat complex performance history. The opera is based on the play Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller, depicting an imagined confrontation between the two rival queens: Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Donizetti first read Andrea Maffei’s translation of the Schiller play when it was published in Italy in 1830 and approached the original translator to be the librettist. Most librettists, however, had the wisdom to stay away from a potential opera that would depict a Catholic queen being beheaded—Italy is, after all, a Catholic nation! Donizetti was forced, instead, to turn to Giuseppe Bardari, a 17-year old law student, who managed a rather effective libretto.
The work was originally intended by Donizetti as a vehicle for his favorite soprano, Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, but when it was in rehearsal in Naples, the king personally forbade its performance: his queen, Maria Christina, was a direct descendant of Mary Stuart. The censors were not only troubled by the beheading of a Catholic royal but also by the bitter confrontation between the two queens at Fotheringhay Castle. Historically, there is no evidence that the two queens ever met, and there is certainly no evidence that Mary Queen of Scots ever called Elizabeth I a vile bastard (the chief invective of both the opera and the play). I believe that Schiller purposefully fabricated this confrontation to drive home a dramatic point: who has what power from where?
In order to appreciate Donizetti’s treatment of Schiller’s play, one must understand the power dynamics of Queen Elizabeth’s court. Elizabeth and her supporters believed that as long as Mary lived, the throne would be threatened. Mary was Catholic, supported by foreign powers like Spain and the Vatican, and as a Stuart with Tudor blood, being the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor (Henry VIII’s sister) and James IV of Scotland, she had a legitimate claim on the throne. Elizabeth I, however, was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Catholics considered her to be an illegitimate child because she was born into a marriage not sanctioned by the Vatican (remember it was Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn that caused England to break with the Catholic church, since Pope Clement VII would not annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon). So there you have it— half the country, Protestants, believed Elizabeth I to be the rightful Queen; the other half, Catholics, believed Mary Stuart to be the rightful Queen. This resulted in many uprisings, assassination plots, and bloodshed. Elizabeth’s court was a cloak and dagger affair, filled with intrigue and subterfuge.
It comes as no surprise that such an opera, dealing openly with the conflict of religions and royal bloodshed, would fall under the harsh watchful gaze of nineteenth-century Italian censors. Though the king of Naples banned the opera, Donizetti still managed to salvage the music, revising and removing large segments of the score and quickly employing a new librettist, Pietro Salatino, in order to create a different work, Buondelmonte, in which the rival queens are two women from rival families in love with the same man. Under that name, the opera premiered on October 18, 1834. Not only was it unsuccessful but the two sopranos playing the two rival women actually got in a fight on stage—a physical confrontation. Apparently sopranos’ egos in the nineteenth century rivaled those of the queens of the sixteenth century.
The two operas of our spring repertoire period, Verdi’s Don Carlos and Donizetti’s Mary Stuart (Maria Stuarda), share one major origin point: they are both based on plays by the German playwright, poet, and thinker Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805).
Schiller was writing at a time of cultural and political crisis. His work stands at a crossroads, summing up the legacy of the eighteenth century and pointing towards the nineteenth. The later dramas— Don Carlos, Mary Stuart, the Wallenstein trilogy, The Maid of Orleans, and William Tell—present the rootlessness of a generation that has inherited the Enlightenment’s intellectual liberation from the constraints of religion and tradition but cannot realize its vision of a better world. These works, written either in anticipation of or in the aftermath of the French Revolution, explore the nature of political legitimacy, the responsible exercise of power and the origin of that power, and the clash of moral judgment and political pressure.
During Schiller’s life, the thrill of freedom, equality, and brotherhood of the French Revolution soon turned sour. The Revolution led to the Terror and finally gave the world Napoleon, a man who wielded far more absolute power over Europe than anyone ever before him. Donizetti, born in 1797, lived through conquests of Napoleon. He, like Verdi, tackled the problems of his age through musical adaptation of historical drama. The three “queen operas,” so named for the leading female roles in Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, all deal with the Tudor period of English history. Not only did these pieces function as vehicles for some of opera’s most memorable prima donnas, but also they sought to shed light on Donizetti’s contemporary world through the musicalization of larger-than-life historical figures.
Verdi, likewise, was attracted to complex historical drama. John Caird, the director of Don Carlos, told me he believes that this opera is Verdi’s most ambitious political statement. Though the story of Don Carlos set in sixteenth-century Spain during the Inquisition, the opera is really about Verdi’s commitment to Italian unification, the collision of Church and State, and the drama of personal romance and passion set within the wider context of political ambition and power.
Mena M. Hanna