In opera generally, and specifically in Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 bel canto masterwork Maria Stuarda (“Mary, Queen of Scots”), creative license and fictional what-ifs add an angle or two to the audience’s enjoyment.
The history of Mary Stuart and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I—the reigning monarch of England from 1558-1603—is complicated. Catholicism versus Protestantism, murders, assassination plots, and claims to the throne, as well as common human jealousy, are all factors in that bloody history. Donizetti’s opera, though, isn’t drawn from history; the composer’s source material is Maria Stuart, by the German playwright Friedrich Schiller, starting at a point shortly before Mary’s execution, during her long incarceration under Elizabeth. Donizetti and his librettist, Giuseppe Bardari, condensed some of Schiller’s extensive construction, including limiting the cast to just six characters. But they retained the play’s most essential scene of conflict: a fictional visit by Elizabeth to the jailed Mary.
Brian Deedrick, the stage director for Knoxville Opera’s production of Mary, Queen of Scots, weighed in on his dramatic approach to communicating the conflict.
“It’s an interesting piece, because it depends on which layer of fact, or which layer of fiction, you want to deal with,” Deedrick says. “Donizetti wrote an opera, based on a play, based on a fiction; the two of them, Elizabeth and Mary, never actually met. How do you tell the story? And how do you tell it authentically? Are you telling the authentic Mary, Queen of Scots story, or are you telling the Schiller play, or are you telling Donizetti’s variation on all of it?
“Mary really had a terrible life. But in Donizetti’s opera, it is made to feel like it is all taking place within one week. Aside from the fact that they never met, Mary was imprisoned by Elizabeth for almost 19 years. What we are trying to do here is play around a little with the time frame. Yes, we have the authentic date of her death, but we are going to set Act I when the two of them were young and vibrant women and give a feeling of time passing. We’re developing a sense of a lifelong feud.
“I’m excited about this production, because even though we are fundamentally dealing with a lie, this great span, this arc, the relationship—or non-relationship—between the two women is something we can really explore.”
Despite getting high marks for using compelling history and literature-based subject matter for many of his tragic operas—Lucia di Lammermoor, Anna Bolena, and Roberto Devereux, for example, in addition to Mary, Queen of Scots—Donizetti’s fame ultimately came from exploiting the exquisite qualities of the human voice in his music, the very definition of bel canto opera. His audiences in the 1820s, ’30s, and ’40s came to the theater for the coloratura and vocal fireworks. They expected certain conventions in the structure of recitatives, arias, and ensemble numbers. Donizetti stood apart from many of his contemporaries for his ability to expand textural flavors and dramatic complexity while disguising, but remaining true to, the musical conventions of the day.
The bel canto revival in the mid 20th century rescued many of Donizetti’s works that had languished since their premieres. With the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance of Maria Stuarda coming only four years ago, much of the thanks must go to sopranos Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills at New York City Opera in the 1960s and ’70s, who brought enthusiastic audiences back to Maria Stuarda.
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