Mary Stuart

At Seattle Opera February/March 2016

Music by Gaetano Donizetti

The Story

Long Story Short:

Queen Elizabeth I of England, fearing a rival in love and politics, sends her proud cousin Mary Stuart to the ax.

Artist's rendering of the opera's central confrontation scene

Who’s Who?

Mary Stuart is the Catholic queen of Scotland. Her husband died in mysterious circumstances.

Hannah is Mary’s companion in her house arrest.

Elizabeth, the Protestant queen of England, has yet to choose a husband. Her courtiers include:

Leicester (pronounced “LESS-ter"), Elizabeth’s favorite, who is in love with Mary.
Talbot, who advises Elizabeth to go easy on Mary.
Cecil, who fears a Catholic uprising, advises Elizabeth to have Mary killed.

Where & When?

England, 1587

What’s Going On?

What Has Come Before
Henry VIII of England broke with the Catholic Church and founded the Church of England, in part so he could divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. His daughter by Anne eventually became Elizabeth I. But Henry’s sister Margaret married the King of Scotland; their grand-daughter, Mary Stuart (also known as Mary, Queen of Scots), became Elizabeth’s rival for the throne of England. When our opera begins, Mary has been condemned to death for treason...

What’s Going On?
At Westminster in London, Queen Elizabeth I is being indecisive. She is toying with the idea of marrying the King of France, although she seems to be in love with someone else. And then there’s the Mary Stuart problem. Elizabeth’s cousin, the Queen of Scotland, has been languishing in house arrest for years. As Elizabeth’s nearest kin, Mary is heir to the throne of England. But she’s also popular, controversial (due to her Catholicism) and not to be trusted. Elizabeth discusses Mary with two advisors, Talbot and Cecil. Talbot urges Elizabeth to show clemency; Cecil warns her that Mary is a dangerous rival.

Mary Stuart painted by Scipione Vannutelli

Elizabeth is fond of the Earl of Leicester, who loves Mary Stuart. He shows Elizabeth a message from Mary begging the Queen to come meet her in person. The jealous Elizabeth nevertheless agrees to the meeting.

At Fotheringay Castle, where Mary Stuart is under house arrest, she tells her attendant, Hannah, about her happy childhood in France. Leicester brings the news that Elizabeth is coming; he encourages Mary to be humble and submissive. The Queen arrives, and Mary kneels before her, but Elizabeth accuses Mary of having violated her marriage and participated in the murder of her husband. Goaded to fury, Mary publically insults Elizabeth, denouncing her as the illegitimate bastard of a whore—and sealing her own doom.

At Westminster, Elizabeth finally signs Mary’s death warrant. When Leicester begs her to spare Mary’s life, Elizabeth tells him he must witness the execution.

Mary, still a devout Catholic, refuses Cecil’s offer of an Anglican minister. Talbot comforts her with a final chance to take Catholic communion. She tells her supporters that she is happy to return to God’s embrace. Three cannon shots signal her execution; Mary Stuart forgives Elizabeth, bids farewell to those she loves, and calmly ascends the scaffold.

The Real Mary Stuart

Mary Stuart (1542-1587) lived during a particularly bloody period in European history. In France, fighting between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots culminated in the ghastly St. Bartholmew’s Day massacre of 1572. The Spanish Inquisition did its utmost to quell freedom-fighters in the Netherlands. And in England, the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were rife with religious strife, assassination plots, and beheadings.

Joyce DiDonato sings the final scene from Mary Stuart

Mary Stuart was born to be a thorn in the side of Elizabeth of England. Traditionally, England was enemies with her neighbors, Scotland and France: Mary became Queen of Scots when she was about a week old (upon the death of her father), and from age 6 she was raised in France and married to its young king. Elizabeth was Protestant, and exerted brilliant diplomacy throughout her reign to keep the peace between England’s Catholics, Anglicans, and Puritans. Mary, by contrast, was Catholic through and through. And whereas Elizabeth never married, Mary married several times. The most important men in Mary’s life were:

In NBC's Reign, Adelaide Kane and Toby Regbo play Mary Stuart and her first husband

Fran├žois II of France.
When she was 16 Mary wed this son of Catherine de Medici, who had been raised as her brother. He died two years later, whereupon she returned to Scotland.

John Knox.
Founder of the Scottish Presbyterian church, friend of John Calvin, and wildly misogynistic preacher who opposed the entire concept of female monarchs. Not a fan of either Elizabeth or Mary, but he was Scottish, so Mary received the bulk of his hatred.

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.
For her second husband—king consort of Scotland until he was assassinated in 1567—Mary took a cute, dim, ultimately useless young Tudor cousin. (They call him ‘Arrigo’ in the opera.)

David Rizzio.
A Italian (and thus Catholic) musician with whom Mary became besotted; she made him her party planner, companion, secretary, and advisor. Darnley, who suspected Rizzio was Mary’s lover, participated in his assassination.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell.
A sturdy soldier, promoted by Mary to Lieutenant of the Border and Lord Admiral. Said to have plotted Darnley’s assassination with Mary. Bothwell (briefly) became Mary’s third husband but their marriage was rejected by both Catholics and Protestants.

Anthony Babington.
A rich young English Catholic hothead who organized an attempted assassination of Elizabeth in 1586. Mary’s awareness of Babington’s plot led directly to her execution.

James I.
Mary’s son, either by Darnley or by Rizzio, became James VI of Scotland, and, upon the death of Elizabeth in 1603, he united the thrones of England and Scotland and became James I, the first Stuart king of England. Protestant, gay, and obsessed with witches.

History & Fiction in Donizetti’s Tudor Tragedies

Opera is not the world’s best medium for telling stories about politics. Operas are measured by how much drama and emotion they deliver. Real history and real politics are often too complicated, too full of intrigue, of shades of gray, of characters who say one thing while thinking another, of situations with countless possible outcomes, to adapt easily into strong operas. But that’s never stopped the world’s great opera composers. Operas inspired by—but not faithful to—European history were all the rage in Donizetti’s day. And given the Catholic Italians’ complicated feelings about England’s Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, a veritable froth of operas dramatized different moments from her life.

Several of Donizetti’s serious operas concern Elizabeth. Kenilworth Castle (1829, about Elizabeth and Leicester) and Anna Bolena (1830, about Elizabeth’s parents) preceded Mary Stuart (1834); later, Donizetti wrote Roberto Devereux (1837, about the Earl of Essex, a favorite courtier of Elizabeth’s whom she eventually executed). These operas do not form a sequence of any kind—they were written independently of each other, most of them based on popular plays or other operas. Donizetti’s Mary Stuart is founded on a wonderful play by the important German writer Friedrich Schiller, whose Mary Stuart is still given by theater companies all over the world.

“Era d'amor l'immagine” from Mary Stuart

Mary Stuart

Mary Stuart at Minnesota Opera

Schiller was responsible for turning the complicated history of Mary Stuart into an effective work of theater. He invented the powerful scene in which Elizabeth visits Mary in her house arrest at Fotheringay. (In real life, Elizabeth and Mary never actually met.) For Donizetti’s opera, Schiller’s extensive cast list was compressed to just six characters, with Leicester, a fascinating historical character, flattened into a typical romantic tenor part. The result is that all psychological interest is focused on Elizabeth and Mary, two well-known, endlessly intriguing figures. Donizetti’s heroine is true to Mary’s personality, as described by historian Will Durant: "She had not the masculine intelligence of Elizabeth...she would let go with hot temper and sharp tongue. She was cursed with beauty, unblessed with brains; and her character was her fate."

Mary Stuart’s Fortunes

Beverly Sills as Mary Stuart

The road to Mary Stuart was rocky indeed. Donizetti was motivated to write this opera after seeing Schiller’s play, but his favorite librettist, Felice Romani, was getting out of the business. So Donizetti had a libretto prepared by an inexperienced seventeen year-old, who never wrote another libretto. The opera was to have its premiere in Naples, but it never happened; during one rehearsal, the scene in which Mary calls Elizabeth a ‘vil bastarda’ so inflamed the passions of the two singers they started fighting savagely with each other and the rehearsal had to be canceled. At another rehearsal (so goes the story) Queen Maria Christina of Naples, herself a descendent of Mary Stuart, fainted, whereupon her husband the king banned the subject. (Someone adapted Donizetti’s music for a different libretto and they presented an opera called Buondelmonte, using the same sets. It was a disaster.)

The following year Donizetti managed to get Mary Stuart performed up in Milan (with some judicious edits), starring the famous singer Maria Malibran. There were a few more performances over the next two decades, but Mary Stuart would have disappeared, as did so many of Donizetti’s operas, were it not for the bel canto revival of the mid-20th century. In the 1970s, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills both made great successes with Mary Stuart, and since then a number of sopranos and mezzos have made a case for Donizetti’s quarreling queens.

About the Composer

Gaetano Donizetti was born in 1797 to a poor family in Bergamo, in Austrian-controlled northern Italy near the Swiss Alps. Although no one in the family had previously shown any musical aptitude, young Gaetano was to become one of Italy’s most important composers—and his brother (who relocated to Istanbul) became chief of music to the armies of the failing Ottoman Empire.

Gaetano Donizetti

When Donizetti displayed phenomenal keyboard skills at an early age, a local composer took him on as a pupil. Curiously, the man who would write some of the most lyrical, singable music in all opera was himself a terrible singer. Donizetti’s mentor set him up with his first opera commission, a comedy for an opera house in Venice. But just as his career in opera was getting going, Donizetti came of age to be drafted into the Austrian army. A wealthy lady from Donizetti’s hometown came to the composer’s rescue and paid to exempt him from entering the army.

For the next 20 years, Donizetti would scurry back and forth across Italy, writing 80-some operas for all the important theaters. He and another composer, a younger man named Vincenzo Bellini, were life-long rivals, each hoping to succeed Gioachino Rossini as Italy’s leading opera composer—until Bellini died young. Donizetti was a skilled craftsman and a hard-nosed, practical man of the theater. Although he took a great deal of care to get his libretti perfect, he was known to reuse music from his old operas when composing new ones. He believed an opera was something that happened on a stage in front of an audience, not something that existed on paper. As a result, he tended to rewrite his operas extensively when he toured them to different cities, based on the abilities of the singers who had gathered for a given production. Many of Donizetti’s greatest successes came in Naples, where the opera industry had been booming for hundreds of years. While producing an opera in Rome, Donizetti met Virginia Vasselli, who later became his wife.

Donizetti wrote both comic and tragic operas, as was typical in his day. Famed for infusing his comedies with a touch of pathos or momentary seriousness, Donizetti wrote (among others) three comedies—The Elixir of Love and Don Pasquale, in addition to The Daughter of the Regiment—which remain staples of the opera repertory. His masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor, rapidly became the most popular opera of its day.

Arthur Woodley and the chorus and orchestra of Seattle Opera sing music from Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti’s most popular opera

In his late 30s, Donizetti was the undisputed king of the Italian opera scene, and as such began venturing abroad to conquer foreign opera houses. In Paris, he was a great success at each of the different theaters that were creating opera. A few years later, Donizetti conquered an opera house in Vienna. For a short period in the early 1840s, he was the most important composer in Europe.

Donizetti was an agreeable, pleasant man who went through a great deal of personal tragedy. His parents died within a week of each other, and his wife died of cholera shortly thereafter. Donizetti himself began losing his mind in 1845, and before long it became clear that he had syphilis. His children had all died, so a nephew looked after him during his few remaining years—a period in which he could barely carry on a conversation, much less continue to compose. He died in his hometown of Bergamo in 1848.

The Music of Mary Stuart

Mary Stuart is a bel canto tragedy. What’s bel canto? The words are easy—"beautiful singing"—but their sense can be misleading. One would hope that all operas involve beautiful singing; what’s so special about bel canto operas? We use the term to refer to the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and their contemporaries, although it can refer to any opera where the most important element is the voice of the singer. Yes, there’s a story, yes, there’s an orchestra, yes, the visuals are attractive; but it’s really all about the singer’s voice and the crazy, serene, terrifying, and beautiful sounds it makes—sometimes clear and simple, like a songbird; sometimes wild and furious, like a blizzard; and in every number, bursts of vocal fireworks. Donizetti and his colleagues tailored their music for specific performers, since they believed that the most important element of opera was the singer. They also developed traditional musical structures that streamlined the process of creating new operas—important in an industry as frantically busy as today’s film industry—and ensured an attentive audience.

The confrontation scene from a 2012 Met Broadcast of Mary Stuart with with Joyce DiDonato

Mary Stuart at Minnesota Opera

Since plot was of secondary importance to the audiences of bel canto operas, the composers used a special kind of music—known as recitative—when moving from one moment in the story to the next. Recitative is midway between singing and talking, and tends to be less tuneful, more declamatory. In Mary Stuart, the brief, taut recitatives may remind you of quick-moving spoken drama. Music that is not recitative is either an aria (if it features only one singer) or an ensemble (if several performers are showcased). The words for this kind of music don’t advance the plot so much as reflect on the emotions that the events of that plot have caused the characters to feel.

Furthermore, bel canto composers liked to divide their arias and ensembles in two. So here are some more musical terms for you: in an aria (or scena, if it’s especially big and grandiose) there are two parts, the cavatina and then the cabaletta. In the cavatina, the emotion tends to be relaxed: dreamy or sad or hopeful or whatever. Then, in the recitative separating cavatina from cabaletta, something happens in the story to change the singer’s mood. The character discovers the key to the prison where her sweetheart has been wasting away, or he decides he truly loves his girlfriend even though he was mad at her in the first half, or a messenger runs in and tells the character that his mother is about to be executed. This change in mood gives the character cause to sing the cabaletta, usually a much more vigorous number than the cavatina, in which the character expresses ecstasy or fury or terror or…well, you get the idea.

Like all bel canto prima donnas, the soprano playing Mary Stuart first appears in the opera’s second scene, when she sings the traditional scena, or double aria:

  • Cavatina: She tells her friend Anna about her happy childhood in France.
  • Cabaletta: Having heard the approach of Queen Elizabeth, she worries whether she has the strength to face her rival.

Now, if we’re composing an ensemble (a duet, or trio, or quartet, or—as Donizetti did in Mary Stuart—a magnificent sextet), we use the same two halves, only we call them not cavatina and cabaletta but primo tempo and stretta. First our lovers are fighting, then they make up and sing of their agreement. Or, first they are happy to be together, then something comes up and they must part—and they sing about how difficult it is to do so. The idea is, when aria alternates with ensemble, cavatina with cabaletta, primo tempo with stretta—all of them separated by recitative—the audience is continuously interested in ever-changing music full of contrasts.

A word on the role of the chorus: all bel canto operas open with a chorus, whose members also frequently chime in during scenas and big ensembles. Bel canto operas often climax in a gargantuan ensemble, called the concertante, in which everybody onstage—all the characters and the entire chorus—sing at the same time, all singing different melodies and different words.

Recommended Recordings

Decca, 1975 (Richard Bonynge, with Joan Sutherland, Huguette Tourangeau, and Luciano Pavarotti)

Angel, 1971 (Aldo Ceccato, with Beverly Sills, Eileen Farrell, and Stuart Burrows)

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