They say that truth is stranger than fiction; but it is not stranger than opera. Opera frequently changes historical truth to be truer to human emotion.
Donizetti’s opera “Maria Stuarda” is centered on a confrontation of two queens; Elizabeth I and Mary Stuarda. The first part of the opera anticipates an explosive meeting between the two, and the final act works through its aftermath. The meeting of the queens was not historical reality, but became expressed as a dramatic inevitability in a play written by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) which was the source for Donizetti’s libretto.
Historical Information Relevant to this Opera
Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. She came to the throne in spite of continued debate about female succession in the monarchy. England was also divided by those who wished for the country to remain Catholic and those who advocated an independent Church of England. Her mother became associated with the new church as a means of providing Henry VIII legal divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Elizabeth attempted to resolve this division in 1559 with the “Elizabethan Religious Settlement” which articulated the idea that the church was both “Catholic” and “Reformed.”
Mary Stuart [Mary Queen of Scots] (1542-1587) daughter of James V of Scotland, whose mother was Margaret Tudor (a daughter of Henry VII of England). Mary’s bloodline from Henry VII gave her a better claim to the English throne than Elizabeth had in the view of many contemporary thinkers. She represented catholic interests and was also therefore a threat to Elizabeth’s reforms.
A bird’s eye view of the opera
The opera moves from fantasy toward truth; toward fact. There is a confessional scene the second act in which not only does the central character confess, but so does the opera itself…more on that later!
This opera is a fabulous introduction to the essential style of Italian opera. Italian opera prioritized the voice and the singer, and in this work the plot moves slowly until each singer is formally introduced through a multi-part aria. Duets are used to mark the close of larger sections of music, and to express the love triangle in vocal terms. Duets in act I are summations and use the tenor voice to frame the love triangle:
- Brief Prelude (featuring clarinet) and scene setting opening chorus. The chorus is used as a framing device in this opera [the chorus appears again during the execution scene]
- Double Aria introducing Queen Elizabeth (Soprano) (low register; unusual key
- Double Aria introducing (Tenor) Leicester
- Duet (set in double aria structure): Leicester and Elisabetta
- Double Aria introducing Maria Stuarda
- Duet (set in double aria structure): Leicester and Maria
- The Confrontation Scene (an extended finale); with middle section longer than the Larghetto (which is a canonic sextet) and stretta combined. Maris calls Elizabetta the “Figlia impura di Bolena Impure daughter of [Anne] Boleyn" then really goes over the top: “Profonato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè! The English throne is sullied, vile bastard, by your foot"
- Solo Aria → Duet →Trio [Elizabeth, Cecil, Leicester] as death warrant is signed
- Confessional [Maria, Talbot]
- The public execution scene: Chorus →Aria del Supplizio [Composed of two slow sections…which breaks formal norms for expressive purposes]→brief duet and final aria for Maria Stuarda.
A closer look at the style of Elizabetta’s entrance music:
Listen to how Elizabetta’s personality is captured in her entrance music: “Ah! Quando all’ara scorgemi” [Ah, when I see at the altar step]
- The opening passage contrasts a Beethovenesque chord progression with a light-heated close
- Elizabetta sings in the dark key of Gb major; she sings music embedded in dance styling
- Embellishments of the bel canto style close each line of text and continually intensify.
- Listen for the strangeness of her personality expressed by the lowest extremes of soprano range, then a middle section in the minor mode
- After an interruption by Cecil and Talbot the structure continues:
- Cabaletta: "Ah, dal ciel descenda un raggio" — "May heaven send a ray of light."
- A choral reaction forms the centerpiece, and then the cabaletta returns and has an expressive and elaborate solo/choral closing.