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Without a period of transition, Opera would not have easily moved from the scrumptious comedies of Gioachino Rossini to the extremely fervent dramas of Giuseppe Verdi. Although he died two decades before Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti proved to be that bridge between musical eras with a series of modish and significant bel canto compositions that united the musical ambitions of opera with the great dramas of the 19th century stage.
Born in Bergamo, Italy, in 1797, Donizetti acquired the reputation of being prolific often at the expense of his compositions. In addition to composing nearly seventy operas Donizetti also gave us a dozen string quartets, masses, cantatas, and much more. Particular admiration that he gained was for his mad scenes, with the great divas of the day trilling and over-acting to their hearts' content. French opera composers thus quickly mimicked Donizetti's dramatic flair for their audiences.
In 1830, Donizetti was established as a distinct voice in opera. He followed this success with L'elisir d'amore in 1832, Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835, Maria Stuarda or, Mary, Queen of Scots (1835), La fille du regiment and La Favorite in 1840, as well as his brilliant comic opera, Don Pasquale, in 1843. Although the Romantic Era has always been visualized as ready to adopt extravagant metaphors for its most serious projects, dreams, visions and technicoloured improbabilities were the currency of the day. But none of this was good news for Maria Stuarda or Mary Stuart, and certainly not in 1818. She, like Carlini's opera, was fatally compromised by association.
Maria Stuarda or Mary Stuart is a tragedia lirica, or tragic opera, by Gaetano Donizetti with a libretto, musically composed by Giuseppe Bardari. Opera Maria Stuarda was based on a play by Schiller. It was not popular at first as the audience did not like the tragic ending. On the contrary, today it is recognized as containing some great music, especially in the final scene. It received its premiere on December 30, 1835 at La Scala, Milan. Based on Schiller's romanticized drama, the passionate zeal, vocal and otherwise, imprisons from start to finish in this fictional description of a head to head war of words between two unforgettable women. It is none other than a drama sure to be talked about and not to be missed!
The king banned performances of the opera, and Donizetti responded by removing large segments from the play, to be used in the production of his different work, Buondelmonte. However, the soprano Maria Malibran, the premiere cast, forced a premiere at La Scala and ignored the censoring revisions, due to which a ban by the city was enforced. Realizing the impossibility of its launch in Italy, a London premiere was planned, but Malibran's tragic death at the age of 28 in 1836 cancelled the project. Except for several productions of the Buondelmonte version, the work was neglected. A production in Donizetti's hometown Bergamo, in 1958 brought the original work into popularity. Thus the premiere in England was held on March 1, 1966.
British opera companies seem to have a curious affinity with Donizetti's Maria Stuarda; English National Opera has mounted two productions of the work even though early 19th century Italian serious opera, which is quite contrary to comic opera, is one of the weakest areas in their repertoire. British Touring Opera recently included a new production on its UK tour. The opera's popularity owes something to the charisma of the eponymous heroine, Mary Queen of Scots. Donizetti's opera, based on Schiller's play, does make free with history but the characters of the opera are recognizably the historical characters of popular imagination. This means, of course, that the opera's plot is not quite that of the stereotype Romantic Italian opera. The core of this opera is the fictional confrontation between Mary Stuart, previously the Catholic Queen of Scotland, and the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth has been advised to put Mary to death as she was jealous of the Earl Leicester's romantic interest in her. The opera builds to the moment of confrontation when political, religious and romantic tensions simmer over, resulting in Mary's denunciation and eventual execution. The opera is recognized as one of Donizetti's most persuasive and dramatic scores which culminate in an uncommonly affecting final scene.There is no mad scene; the love interest most notably between Maria and Lord Leicester is relatively discreet as the heroine does not die for love, rather she survives till the end of the opera to be executed. One of the central highlights of the opera is a scene where the two divas heave foul language at each other. So perhaps it is this rather nonconforming plot which helps the opera achieve its popularity.
Luigi Carlini's imprudent Maria Stuarda, regina di Scozia was his very first opera. He wrote the libretto himself it seems based it upon a drama by Camillo Federici, as its preface makes clear. Federici (1749-1802) was a former actor, a piemontese and the author of pulp dramas whose subject-matter impinged upon those of Schiller and Kotzebue, but had extremely more political connotations. Carlini's ill-fated and ill-timed opera made its first and only appearance at the Real Teatro Carolino of Palermo of the stagione of 1818 and was dedicated to none other than SUA ALTEZZA REALE IL DUCA DI CALABRIA. It is unnecessary to report that poor Carlini's melodrama with such a boldly proclaimed source promptly vanished without a trace from all records with wonderful efficiency.
This was a shame. Though Carlini's dramma serio was certainly viewed with dismay by the Royal Palace in Naples, with some attempts at historical accuracy. But the theme became political dynamite. Naturally the dangerous political acquaintances of the incautious Queen of Scots were unable to escape eagle eyes in Naples. The mythology had been grimly noted as during English seclusion all sorts of plots to release the imprisoned queen had flown back and forth. Arising from a convoluted version of the Babington plot of 1586 (referred to in Bardari's libretto for Donizetti) in which Elizabeth's assassination was fully visualized, a whole host of conspiratorial myths, fantasies and inventions had been put forward by continental sympathizers.
The Neapolitan branch that was descended from Mary Stuart was no excuse, nor was the conspiracy any kind of improvement, as there were far more bloody examples in recent times. Unfortunately, it was conspiracy that undid her.
Even 30 years later Verdi could write (to Piave): They allowed Ernani, so they might allow this too, as there is no conspiracy Conspiracy was the ultimate unforgivable sin, indeed pathologically-so as far as the Bourbons of Naples were concerned. A TRIUMPH OF THE CARBONARI was not to be contemplated, not even in the cause of any martyred Catholic queen - ancestral or otherwise. It needed no spelling-out ... sarebbe inutile un piu minuto dettaglio as it says so cogently in the libretto.