“Maria Stuarda” is the second of Donizetti’s unofficial “Tudor Trilogy,” the drama focusing in on the rivalry between Mary Stuart and Anna Bolena’s daughter Elizabeth the first. Based on Schiller’s 1800 play, the libretto is the work of Giuseppe Bardari.
The drama pits the two queens against one another, though the truth is that they never actually met in real life; this as Schiller’s concoction. The opera struggled at the outset with censorship, was banned from the stage and almost never made its first performance.
Even when the opera was planned for the Dec. 28, 1835 premiere it had to postpone because lead singer Maria Malibran, a mezzo who sang soprano roles, was indisposed. Eventually the opera got its successful Dec. 30, 1835 premiere, though it was far from a runaway success. The opera struggled for much of the 19th century and never found its way to the stages of such major cities as London, Vienna, or Paris. In the 20th and 21st centuries the opera remains somewhat obscure though it has become more popular in recent years.
Short Plot Summary
The Queen has received a marriage proposal from Dauphin Francois, but she is reluctant to lose her freedom and pardon her cousin Maria Stuarda. Leicester arrives and she tells him that she will marry the Dauphin, attempting to rile up his jealousy. He has no prominent reaction and she concludes that she has a rival for his affections. Leicester gets a letter from Maria through Talbot and is subsequently questioned by the Queen. He hands over the letter in which Maria asks for an audience with the queen. He confesses his love for Maria to Elisabetta, setting her off in search of vengeance.
Maria meets with Leicester, they renew vows of love and then the Queen arrives. Elisabetta is hostile and eventually the meeting turns into a confrontation. Elisabetta has Maria taken away and returned to captivity.
Elisabetta hesitates to sign the death warrant for Maria, but eventually concedes when Leicester begs her to stop. Maria prepares for her death, even offering to pardon the queen. Leicester bids her farewell and then she walks to her doom.
Famous Musical Numbers
The opera’s most famous moment is not an aria or even duet, but a dramatic sequence of recitatives during which Maria and the Queen confront one another. It all escalates wondrously into Maria’s insult of the Queen that ultimately leads right into the pezzo concertato.
Watch and Listen
Here is Montserrat Caballé in the title role with Bianca Berini as Elisabetta, Eduardo Gimenez as Roberto, and Maurizio Mazzieri as Talbot.