On Dec. 30, 1835 Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” made its premiere with the admired soprano Maria Malibran. The opera did not get a good reception due to the two sopranos being in poor voice and as a result of Malibran ignoring the censors. The result was an opera that would be ignored for 130 years and one that would not be presented until the 20th century.
Though the critical edition was not actually put together until 1989, the work became popular in the 70’s and was performed more frequently. There was a reason for the popularity as the score showcases a more mature Donizetti. The work is a great contrast from “Lucia di Lammermoor” which also premiered in the same year in that “Maria Stuarda” finally shows Donizetti experimenting with the music. There is a dramatization that is expressed throughout each aria, duet or concertato.
For example, Elisabetta’s music is always filled with florid runs and always has a galloping rhythm. The rhythm represents her power and her unsteadiness, but it also shows her anger in many ways and her invincibility is expressed through her rapid coloratura.
Let’s take a look at the act one duet between Leicester and Elisabetta. During the duet “Era d’amor l’immagine“ Leicester pleads for Maria. Leicester’s lines are all lyrical but once Elisabetta begins to sing, her vocal phrases are filled with irony with a contrast of rhythmic emphasis.
Now lets take a look at the Trio with Leicester, Elisabetta and Cecil. It is the tenor who introduces the melodic line. Elisabetta continues it as if she is seduced by Leicester’s pleas to save Maria Stuarda. However, she changes quickly, adds a florid line and the melody becomes more rhythmic with the resurfacing gallop. The recitative before the stretta of the trio is dominated by the Queen’s unsteady music and in the stretta it is the queen who starts out with staccato lines. The fact that those lines remain to the end emphasize her victory.
Take a look at Maria Stuarda’s music which is made up of lyrical arias that represent the innocence, the sober qualities and the lyricism of the character. Donizetti could have easily added a virtuosic aria in the second act especially when Stuarda has a total of four arias back-to-back. However, her music always maintains the same qualities. Her confession aria “Quando di Luce” is filled with a number of inventive cues. The aria starts with a beautiful lyrical line that expresses Stuart’s character from the beginning of the opera. However, during the middle of the aria the music takes on an explosive quality that expresses Stuarda’s torment. The aria also develops into a duet as the bass sings alongside her. The aria becomes part of the action and not only as a means of expressing her emotions.
But where this opera really shows a Donizetti at his most dramatic is during the confrontation scene between Elisabetta and Maria Stuarda. The scene begins as usual with a mezzo concentrate but it immediately enters into a dialogue. There is a dramatic immediacy to the music that propels the drama and the sopranos each get distinctions in their music. While the music lacks melodic emphasis, Maria Stuarda still gets a lyric line that is accompanied by cellos while Elisabetta’s music is more sparse and once again filled with many more coloratura lines. Only when Maria Stuarda is insulted does her line change to a more detached lines. There is even a moment where both sopranos hold a high note at the same time. It represents the two fighting for power. The way the Donizetti arrives at this climax is efficient and powerful and there is no question that the composer arrives at one of the most dramatic scenes he ever wrote.