Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti

Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti

Readers may or may not have heard of the composer Gaetano Donizetti, who wrote some very well known operas during the 19th century. One of his less well known works which merits some discussion is Maria Stuarda (which translates as Mary Stuart), a two act tragic opera about a meeting (which never occurred) between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth 1 Queen of England.

The opera plot is actually a lot more complex than it would seem. Lord Leicester has fallen in love with Mary but also wants to please Queen Elizabeth. However as the opera progresses he attempts to persuade Queen Elizabeth to release Mary from her imprisonment, with disastrous consequences. It is Leicester who is responsible for persuading Elizabeth to meet up with Mary during a hunt, and neither Queen is happy about the situation.

In the end the meeting does take place and a thoroughly irritated Elizabeth starts to torment Mary with insults. In the end Mary explodes and informs Elizabeth that she is illegitimate (the famous una bastarda line!) and Elizabeth sentences Mary to death. There is then a huge chorus which ends Act 1.

Act II covers Elizabeth wrestling with her conscience around the whole thing, Lord Cecil insisting that for the good of the throne Mary must die and Lord Leicester desperately trying to save Mary's life. There are tragic scenes with Mary in her prison and then on the way to the scaffold, with Leicester told that he must witness her death. The opera closes with Mary being blindfolded ready to be beheaded.

The opera itself was first performed on 30 December 1835 at La Scala in Milan. The libretto is by Guiseppe Bardari and it itself is based on a translation by Andrea Maffei of Schiller's play Maria Stuart written in 1800. The music is spectacular, requiring coloratura ability in all of the roles.

Famous performances include one in 1974/75 with Joan Sutherland in the title role. Dame Janet Baker and Rosalind Plowright also performed together in Dame Janet's final operatic performance in a spectacular production which is available on DVD (though this DVD is rapidly becoming very hard to find). Excerpts from both can be found on Youtube. A third recommendation I can make is the wonderfully sung performance from the Met, also available on DVD, with Joyce Didonato and Eliza Van den Heever in the title roles.

In short, it is an opera well worth getting to know, the music is wonderful and when done well it really is very special.

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