The plot of Donizetti’s stellar opera Mary Stuart centres on the meeting of rival cousins Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots), and their subsequent dramatic fallout.
Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart are, of course, important characters from English history and their eventful lives have been thoroughly documented. But while their conflict was real, mostly because Elizabeth suspected Mary of eyeing her throne, the two queens never actually met!
Donizetti based his opera on Friedrich von Schiller’s German play of the same name, which was part of a newfound popular culture obsession with 16th century England. Across Europe in the 1800’s, largely because of a revival of Shakespeare’s plays, people were captivated by the controversial lives of British monarchs.
Donizetti’s fascination with the queens and their rivalry, however, developed into an operatic “what if?” scenario: the two cousins meet, exchange arguments, invoke jealousy, threaten consequences, and Mary even kneels for forgiveness; giving Donizetti a diverse range of emotions to set to music. For good measure, he throws in a love triangle.
But the drama doesn’t end there. In fact, many of the theatrics around Mary Stuart took place away from the stage.
Donizetti faced a remarkable number of obstacles in getting his opera mounted. Not only did censors give him a tough time, but the sopranos singing Mary and Elizabeth despised each other passionately, and could barely stand to work together. To add to the chaos, when the opera was about to premiere in 1834, the king of Naples happened to check in on a dress rehearsal. His wife, who was a direct descendant of Mary Stuart, was absolutely scandalized by the content and is said to have had a fainting fit! Naturally, the show was cancelled.
Forced to adapt to his misfortune, Donizetti rebranded the opera and created a new title, Buondelmonte, and changed the names of the rival queens. The opera flopped terribly and was cancelled after six performances.
Determined to make his work succeed, Donizetti left Naples and premiered Mary Stuart in Milan in 1835. But the performances were reportedly uninspired, and the soprano singing Mary used the words vil bastarda (vile bastard) to insult Elizabeth during the performance. The censors had warned against singing those words, but the soprano ignored them. Both the audience and censors shut down the production.
Donizetti did not see a successful run of Mary Stuart in his lifetime. It was performed a few times over the years but never left an impression. It remains a mystery as to why audiences failed to pay attention to this highly dramatic and effortlessly crafted bel canto opera; perhaps the timing and circumstances were never right.
But beginning the 1960’s, Mary Stuart was rediscovered and has finally been receiving the appreciation it deserves. In recent years, the rival queens have taken several sold out houses across the world by storm; audiences are enthralled by the queens’ fierce confrontation, and they applaud the liberties Donizetti took with history to create this emotive and extravagant masterpiece.
If the tensions and chaos that went into staging Mary Stuart are any indication, this opera is bound to quench your thirst for drama.
Edmonton Opera presents the Alberta premiere of Mary Stuart at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium Saturday April 16, Tuesday April 19, and Thursday April 21, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at edmontonopera.com, or by calling our box office at 780.429.1000 from Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.