Maria Stuarda

Maria Stuarda

Music by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Giuseppe Bardari

April 12, 14, 18, and 20, 2012, at 8 pm
Matinée April 22 at 2:30 pm

In Italian with English surtitles

Above: Meet the duelling divas and see scenes from Pacific Opera Victoria's production of Maria Stuarda, with Tracy Dahl, Sally Dibblee, Edgar Ernesto Ramírez, Andrew Love, Stephen Hegedus, and Lisa DiMaria. With the Victoria Symphony, conducted by Timothy Vernon, and the POV Chorus, directed by Giuseppe Pietraroia. Directed by Maria Lamont. Set and Costume Design by Camellia Koo.
Shine-ola Communications

Above: Adam Sawatsky of CTV Vancouver Island interviews Tracy Dahl and Sally Dibblee


Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, former Queen of France, and claimant to the throne of England, is held prisoner by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. Will Mary's attempts to cajole Elizabeth into a reconciliation save her from being beheaded?

Donizetti takes shameless liberties with history, but imparts a splendid operatic flair to the political and religious conflict between Mary and Elizabeth. So what if the feuding monarchs never met in real life! Donizetti brings them together anyway, concocts a love triangle, and lets the sparks fly. As the niceties of diplomacy go out the window, the confrontation erupts into some very un-royal language and the most lyrical catfight in all of opera.

Maria Stuarda brings us two indomitable heroines and a wonderfully Italian twist on British history – Shakespearian invective hurled in purest bel canto, hatred and scorn spun into silken, sinuous melody – magnificent drama and ethereal music.

Two women locked in conflict over one of the world's most powerful empires . . . their lives interwoven in a passionate and painful struggle for political power.
Maria Lamont, Director


Cast and Creative Team



Act 1 The Palace of Westminster

Elisabetta (Elizabeth I) is toying with the idea of marrying the King of France, although she is actually in love with Lord Leicester, Robert Dudley, a long time member of her court. Elisabetta is also full of ambivalence about her cousin, Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart, the exiled Queen of Scotland) who is claimant to the throne of England. Maria is being held prisoner in England, and while Talbot (Earl of Shrewsbury and Mary's keeper), urges Elisabetta to be merciful, Cecil (Lord Burghley, Elisabetta's chief advisor), pushes for Maria's execution.

Elisabetta orders Leicester to deliver a ring to the French Envoy as a token that she is considering the marriage proposal. She is exasperated by Leicester's cool indifference.

Talbot privately gives Leicester a letter from Maria in which she begs him to arrange a meeting with Elisabetta. Leicester rhapsodizes over Maria's beauty, proclaiming that he would happily die for her. Clearly in love, Leicester is discovered by Elisabetta. Her suspicions aroused, Elisabetta pressures the flustered Leicester to give her the letter. Elisabetta gloats over Maria's change of fortune and the fact that her three crowns are now lost to her. Leicester begs Elisabetta to show compassion, but praises Maria's beauty a little too ardently. Furious that Maria is trying to rob her of both her crown and the man she loves, Elisabetta agrees to a meeting, but secretly pledges to punish her rival.

Act 2 Fotheringhay Castle

Imprisoned at Fotheringhay Castle, Maria enjoys a beautiful day with her companion Anna and sings nostalgically of her happy youth in France. When trumpets announce the arrival of Elisabetta's hunting party, Maria's mood abruptly changes to dread at the thought of meeting her cousin. Leicester appears and urges Maria to appear submissive. He is confident Elisabetta will be merciful – if she is not, he vows to take revenge.

The meeting begins tensely. The two women eye one another warily, Maria full of terror and apprehension, and Elisabetta infuriated by the pride she sees in her rival. When Maria kneels to ask forgiveness, Elisabetta taunts her about her sordid past, including rumors of adultery, and her implication in the murder of her husband. Even as Leicester and Talbot urge her to hold her tongue, Maria, provoked beyond endurance, loses her temper, and insults Elisabetta by calling her impure and illegitimate. Elisabetta orders her guards to take an unrepentant Maria away, as all save the gleeful Cecil express their horror and despair.


Act 3 Council Chambers in Westminster; Fotheringhay Castle

Elisabetta is vacillating over Maria's execution; Lord Cecil urges Elisabetta to sign and seal the warrant as England's security and future hangs in the balance. Leicester's arrival convinces her to follow through with signing the death warrant. His pleas for leniency only serve to fuel her conviction, and she orders him to witness his lover's execution.

In Fotheringhay Castle, Cecil delivers the warrant to Maria, and Talbot stays to comfort her. Denied a Catholic last confession, Maria tells Talbot she is haunted by the ghosts of her murdered secretary Riccio, as well as her husband Darnley; she is tormented with remorse over her personal past, as well as her involvement in a plot (The Babington Plot) against Elisabetta. She experiences a moment of epiphany and release, and prepares herself for death. She greets her household and gathered witnesses, and with great nobility leads a prayer to God. As cannon shots signal the imminent execution, Cecil asks Maria if she has any last wishes. She requests that Anna accompany her to the scaffold, and announces her forgiveness of Elisabetta, promising she will beseech God to bless England and its Queen.

Leicester enters, distraught and railing against the injustice of the death sentence. Maria begs him not to avenge her, but to support and comfort her as she goes to her death. She says farewell and is led to the scaffold. Cecil declares that with the death of its enemy, England's peace is now ensured.

The Historical Characters

Let's meet the historical personages behind the characters in the opera ...

  • Queen Elizabeth I (Elisabetta): When her father, Henry VIII, divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and married Anne Boleyn, establishing himself as Head of the Church of England, many Catholics (and the Pope himself) considered Elizabeth, the child of that union, to be illegitimate. They thought that Mary Stuart, granddaughter of Henry VIII's elder sister, was the rightful queen of England.

  • Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (Maria Stuarda): Although Donizetti portrays Mary as practically a saint by the end of the opera, her lurid past is lightly alluded to when she and Elizabeth trade insults and when Mary confesses her sins to Talbot.

    Over her 44 years, Mary amassed three husbands and a claim to three thrones. The daughter of King James V of Scotland, she became Queen of Scotland in 1542, at the age of 6 days. At 15 she was married off to Francis II, who died after only 18 months as King of France.

    Mary returned to Scotland, now a Protestant country, and in 1565 married her cousin Henry Lord Darnley. A nasty piece of work, Darnley is believed to have had Mary's secretary David Rizzio (or Riccio) stabbed to death in front of her when she was pregnant. Darnley himself was murdered in 1567; three months afterward, Mary married the chief suspect, Lord Bothwell.

    Amid accusations of adultery and murder, she fled to England, where she was taken into custody and imprisoned for the last 19 years of her life. She was convicted of treason for her apparent involvement in the Babington Plot of 1586 against Elizabeth, and was executed in 1587.

    But when the childless Elizabeth died, she was succeeded by Mary's son, who became both James VI of Scotland and James I of England. Queen Elizabeth II is a descendant of Mary Queen of Scots.

  • Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, was such a close friend of Elizabeth that many believed – or feared – that the Queen would marry him. Oddly enough, in 1563 Elizabeth had suggested Dudley as a husband for Mary Stuart, possibly so that Elizabeth could control the Scottish queen. However, Leicester wanted no part of such a scheme. Early on he supported Mary Stuart's succession rights to the English throne, but gradually turned against her, and after the Babington plot came to light, he advocated her execution.

  • William Cecil, 1st Baron Burleigh, was Elizabeth's chief advisor and did indeed want Mary executed, for he believed she was a magnet for Catholic conspirators. To foil a continuous series of plots against the realm, he established a spy network under Francis Walsingham, who is often called the father of the British Secret Service. Some scholars believe that Cecil is the model for the character of Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

  • George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury was Mary's jailer during much of her time in custody. It was a luxurious imprisonment; Mary lived at various of Talbot's properties, had her own court, kept horses and dogs, played billiards, and worked on embroideries. There is no historic evidence that Talbot was a Catholic priest, as depicted in the opera.

Duelling Legacies

Elizabeth I has been called the greatest monarch in British history, her eponymous era a golden age that established English supremacy in the arts, commerce, and politics; that saw voyages of exploration and the rise of English naval power and a sense of national identity. Though by no means free of conflict, her 44-year reign provided a breather of relative tolerance, stability and peace amid centuries of turbulent see-sawing between Catholic and Protestant rulers and power struggles between Parliament and the Monarchy.

About Elizabeth's cousin Mary Stuart, who languished in prison for nearly 20 years until Elizabeth had her beheaded, there is less agreement. Mary has always evoked complicated responses, beginning with Elizabeth's own, for she famously delayed the execution, reluctant to behead another queen and knowing the political implications both at home and abroad. In fact Elizabeth described Mary as the daughter of debate, that eke discord doth sow and, despite Mary's requests, refused to ever meet her.

Was Mary a bloodthirsty harlot and an inveterate conspirator against the life of her cousin? Or a martyr and the rightful Queen of England? Or simply a victim of the convoluted Realpolitik of her times?

Certainly Donizetti comes down on the side of Mary, although his portrayal of Elizabeth does not lack complexity. To those of us who know just a little history – usually what has been written by the victors – Donizetti sheds a novel perspective, bringing the two queens together in a dramatic, if fictional, meeting. He may take egregious liberties with history, but in so doing, he invites us to get to know these characters and their legacies.

Adventures with Censors

Maria Stuarda was based on after Andrea Maffei's Italian translation of Friedrich von Schiller's play Maria Stuart.

The opera had an extremely rocky start, distinguished by a last-minute scramble for a librettist (Donizetti eventually found a 17-year-old law student-cum-poet named Giuseppe Bardari, who never wrote another libretto but instead grew up to be a judge and the Naples Prefect of Police); followed by last minute changes to pacify the censors; and finally a real-life row between the leading ladies.

In the end, the show did not go on. Any 19th century Italian opera worth its salt ran into turmoil with the censors, and, just before the scheduled première, Ferdinand II King of Naples banned Maria Stuarda, some said because his queen, Maria Cristina, was a direct descendant of Mary Stuart (some stories say she threw a fainting fit at the dress rehearsal).

Donizetti quickly moved the setting to the perhaps less riveting conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines in 13th century Florence and, reinvented as Buondelmonte, the opera premièred in Naples in October 1834 – and flopped.

A well-established tradition in 19th century Italian opera was to simply up and move your censored opera to another city, where the bureaucracy might be more flexible. Donizetti did exactly that, trying again, this time in Milan, where, after yet more trouble with the censor, Maria Stuarda had its first actual staging in December 1835 – and was promptly banned after just six performances. But what performances, with the headstrong diva Maria Malibran ignoring the censors' strictures against calling Elisabetta a "vil bastarda".

After this, the opera disappeared until a 1958 revival in Donizetti's home town of Bergamo. In the 1970s the likes of Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, and Beverly Sills took up the title role, ensuring its future in opera houses around the world.

Donizetti's British Invasion

A prolific composer of some 66 operas, Gaetano Donizetti (1797 - 1848) is best known for just a handful: L'elisir d'amore (1832), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), Don Pasquale (1843), and La fille du régiment (1840). But in the last half century there has been a Donizetti renaissance of sorts as more and more of his works – and their coloratura delights – are revived.

The romantic exoticism of British stories and locales found its way into nine of Donizetti's operas. The most famous of course is Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), based on Walter Scott's gothic romance, The Bride of Lammermoor. But Donizetti was intrigued with British history and literature as a starting point for opera as early as 1823 with Alfredo il grande (Alfred the Great) – a spectacular failure that flopped after a single performance.

By 1830, Donizetti's international reputation was established with the Milan première of Anna Bolena, the first of his 'Three Queens' trilogy; it tells of the last days of Anne Boleyn (second wife of Henry VIII, mother of Elizabeth I, and heroine of one of Donizetti's many mad scenes). The second in this Tudor mini-series is Maria Stuarda, with its riveting, though fictional, meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Finally, Roberto Devereux (1837) is a May-December romance between Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. All three operas (spoiler alert!) end with the execution of the title character; none can be relied on for sober historical accuracy – in fact Roberto Devereux ends with Queen Elizabeth going mad and abdicating.

Donizetti's mashups of British history also included Il castello di Kenilworth, another Walter Scott vehicle and yet another Elizabeth - Leicester love triangle; L'assedio di Calais, a fictionalization of the 1346 siege of Calais; and Rosmonda d'Inghilterra, a murderous royal triangle about Henry II, his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the Other Woman, Fair Rosamund – also veering toward the libellous, as, contrary to Donizetti's opera and persistent legends, there is no historical evidence that Eleanor killed her rival (in fact Rosamund eventually retired to a nunnery).

Finally, there is the opera that was rescued from utter obscurity by proud Liverpudlians. This is Emilia di Liverpool, set improbably in an alpine hermitage a short distance from London. It premiered in Naples in 1824, with only modest success. Donizetti had great hopes for it, and after revisions it re-emerged in 1828 as L'Eremitaggio Di Liwerpool [sic]. Alas, it continued to languish, receiving brief revivals in Naples in 1838 and 1871 . . . and then nothing for nearly a century, until June 1957 when Fritz Spiegl, principal flautist of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and founder of the Liverpool Music Group, rediscovered the opera and came up with the bright idea of presenting a concert performance of Emilia di Liverpool to celebrate Liverpool's 750th birthday. Three months later, a shortened version was broadcast by the BBC, this time with a young Joan Sutherland in the title role. The opera popped up yet again in 2008 to mark Liverpool's status as European Capital of Culture.

– And yes, you can hear it on Youtube! Here's a sample of Joan Sutherland's 1957 performance of Emilia's rondo finale, "Confusa è l'alma mia", from Emilia di Liverpool. Make sure to listen through to the end; it's a tour de force of vocal pyrotechnics.


Maria Stuarda and Donizetti

  • libretto (pdf)
    CD Booklet from the Dynamic recording of a production by Teatro Donizetti di Bergamo, including notes and the libretto in four languages.

  • Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller
    Download an English translation of the German play on which Donizetti's opera is based.

  • I'll Never Stop Saying Maria
    An enjoyable, in-depth article from Opera News by Ira Siff, exploring Maria Stuarda, the Three Queens Trilogy, and the bel canto revival.

  • Background Notes from Minnesota Opera (pdf)
    An in-depth look at the genesis of the opera, the historical background, and a Tudor-Stuart family tree.

  • Quarreling Queens: Donizetti's 'Maria Stuarda
    An amusing NPR segment exploring the connection between the Dixie Chicks and Maria Stuarda. Music and politics are a volatile mix, esecially with chicks who aren't ready to make nice. Read the article or listen to the segment, complete with music from both the Dixie Chicks and Maria Stuarda

  • Gaetano Donizetti
    Wikipedia Biography of Gaetano Donizetti

  • Giuseppe Bardari
    Biography of the librettist of Maria Stuarda – who never wrote another opera!

  • Emilia di Liverpool and L'Eremitaggio Di Liwerpool (pdf)
    Can't get enough Donizetti? Peruse the CD Booklet from an Opera Rara recording of both versions of Donizetti's Liverpudlian opus, with copious notes, photos, and both libretti.
    If you'd like to savour the charming music from this early work of Donizetti, you can listen to most of the historic 1957 Liverpool broadcast on Youtube. If you decide to follow along with the libretto, be warned that although this performance was billed as Emilia di Liverpool, it was actually the 1828 revision, L'eremitaggio di Liwerpool; the libretto begins on page 204 of the CD booklet.

    Emilia di Liverpool: Joan Sutherland
    Colonello Tompson: William McAlpine
    Conte Asdrubale: Hervey Alan
    Claudio: Denis Dowling
    Candida: April Cantelo
    Bettina: April Cantelo
    Conductor - Jonh Pritchard
    Orchesta - Royal Liverpool Philarmonic
    Singers of Liverpool Music Group


  • Queen Elizabeth I
    The Wikipedia article on Elizabeth I of England provides an excellent overview of Elizabeth's life and times, along with many links for further reading

  • Queen Elizabeth I
    Another overview of Elizabeth and her times, with links for further reading

  • Mary, Queen of Scots
    Wikipedia biography of Mary Stuart, with many links.

  • Mary, Queen of Scots
    Another introduction to Mary Stuart and her times

  • History of the Monarchy
    Official website of the British Monarchy: Explore in greater depth the kings and queens of Britain.

  • The Reputations of Mary Queen of Scots
    A scholarly article published in Études écossaises. Jayne Lewis of the University of California, Irvine examines wildly differing perspectives on Mary Queen of Scots. For every Protestant who saw Mary as a bloodthirsty harlot there was thus a Catholic to see her as a pious martyr. For every Scottish person who had heard she was a Frenchified interloper, there was a French one who understood her to be the rightful unifier of the thrones of England, Scotland, and France. For every man who loathed and repudiated her as a Jezebel, there was a woman to love her as a composite of the biblical Marys who participated in Christ's passion.

  • George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury
    Biography of the historical character of Talbot

  • William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley
    Biography of the historical character of William Cecil

  • Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester
    Biography of the historical character of Leicester

  • The Elizabethan Secret Service
    Learn about the first stirrings of the British Secret Service during the time of Elizabeth I. Discover the espionage techniques and the plots and counterplots (including details of the Babington Plot, which led to the execution of Mary Stuart). The officers controlling the secret service included Sir Francis Walsingham and two of the characters in the opera, William Cecil, Baron of Burghley; and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.
    A Bachelor's Diploma Thesis by Michaela Macková of Masaryk University in the Czech Republic

Maureen Woodall


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