About this Recording
8.660261-62 - DONIZETTI, G.: Maria Stuarda (Sferisterio Opera Festival, 2007)

Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848)
Maria Stuarda


Tragedia lirica in Three Acts
Libretto by Giuseppe Bardari

Elisabetta - Laura Polverelli
Maria Stuarda - Maria Pia Piscitelli
Anna Kennedy - Giovanna Lanza
Roberto, conte di Leicester - Roberto De Biasio
Talbot - Simone Alberghini
Cecil - Mario Cassi

FORM – Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana
Coro Lirico Marchigiano ‘V. Bellini’ (Chorus Master: Davide Crescenzi)
Conductor: Riccardo Frizza


Gaetano Donizetti was born at Bergamo in 1797, to a poor family. Nonetheless he soon showed musical promise, and at the age of nine became a pupil of the distinguished musician Simone Mayr. When he was eighteen he moved to Bologna for two years of further study with Padre Mattei, who had also taught Rossini. Although Donizetti composed chamber and church music and numerous songs, it is for his operas that he is best remembered.

Donizetti’s operatic career divides into four phases. During the first, lasting from 1816 to 1822, he worked as an apprentice composer of operas. The climax of this period was his first fleeting success, the opera Zoraide di Grenata. The second phase was principally focused upon Naples and lasted from 1822 until 1830. During this time Donizetti absorbed the influence of Rossini, eventually to arrive at his own mature style with Anna Bolena, his first major international success. The third phase of his career, still centered upon Naples, extended from 1831 to 1838. Some of his most famous operas date from this time: L’elisir d’amore, Lucrezia Borgia, Maria Stuarda, Lucia di Lammermoor, Belisario and Roberto Devereux. The final phase was divided between Paris and Vienna, and ended with Donizetti’s complete collapse in 1845. It was during this time that a further tranche of masterpieces was first produced: La fille du régiment, La favorite, Linda di Chamounix, Don Pasquale, Maria di Rohan, and Dom Sebastien.

By 1845 Donizetti was the most performed Italian composer in Europe. Despite his professional success, his personal life was tragic. One of his children lived for less than two weeks while another two were still-born. His wife was to die before she was thirty. At the age of 48 Donizetti was completely incapacitated by a neglected venereal illness. Following several months in a sanatorium in Paris, he was brought back to Italy, where he died in his native town of Bergamo, in April 1848.

Maria Stuarda was the forty-sixth of Donizetti’s seventy operas, and its composition and early performances were beset with numerous difficulties. The first involved the librettist. Following the production of Lucrezia Borgia at La Scala, Milan, in 1833, Donizetti and the leading librettist of the day, Felice Romani, had parted company. Romani had grown tired of the frequently chaotic ways of the opera house, and the cavalier manner in which his work was treated. He ignored all of Donizetti’s entreaties to collaborate, and so as the time approached for the delivery of an opera by the summer of 1834 for the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, Donizetti found himself without either a libretto or a librettist. In desperation he engaged Giuseppe Bardari, a professional lawyer in Naples but only an amateur poet, to work with him.

They had decided upon a subject by the beginning of June, 1834. The opera was composed during the summer months, and the dress rehearsal took place at the end of September, in front of a distinguished audience which included the Queen of Naples. The following day an astounded Donizetti was informed that the King of Naples, desperate to curry popular favour with optimistic musical galas, had decreed that the new opera was to be cancelled as ‘the presentation of operas and ballets of tragic arguments should always be prohibited’. The desperate management turned to Donizetti for help in their hour of need and for a consideration he obligingly transformed Maria Stuarda into Buondelmonte, which received its first performance on 14th October 1834, with the action moved from Tudor England to Renaissance Italy. This hurried revision made little impression.

Donizetti, however, had not lost faith in Maria Stuarda, and with the aid of his publisher Ricordi he negotiated for it to be presented at La Scala, Milan, at the end of December 1835. This time the Austrian censors passed the text without any quibbles, but other factors marred the experience. At the beginning of December Donizetti learned of the death of his father, and for the first performance at the end of the month the soprano Maria Malibran only appeared in the title rôle because of the threat of a severe financial penalty, much to the disgust of the audience. Subsequent performances in the run fared better, but by the seventh the censors suddenly demanded changes. The opera was effectively abandoned, with the final scheduled performances consisting of separate acts of Maria Stuarda without Malibran, and of Rossini’s Otello. Maria Stuarda was not to be presented at La Scala again for one hundred and thirty years, although it was heard in the Italian provinces and in Naples once again in 1865.

Modern revivals commenced with a production at the Teatro Donizetti in Bergamo in 1958, but both on this occasion and at a subsequent revival in Stuttgart in 1963 disaster struck once again, with principal singers afflicted with unexpected illnesses. The first English performances took place to great success at the St Pancras Festival in 1966, since when Maria Stuarda has been taken into the international repertoire of many leading singers, including Dame Joan Sutherland, Dame Janet Baker, and Beverley Sills, all of whom have recorded it for the gramophone.

The source of Bardari’s libretto was the play Maria Stuart by the famous German author, Friedrich Schiller. In order to meet the operatic conventions of the day, Bardari slimmed down the original considerably: twenty-one characters became six, but several of the major dramatic scenes of Schiller’s play are retained, such as the famous encounter between the two queens Mary and Elizabeth in the second act. Of all the characters from Schiller, the least changed is Mary, Queen of Scots. Bardari convincingly retains her dignity, character and religious conviction.

Donizetti’s great skills as an operatic composer are evident throughout the score, of which, not surprisingly given its chequered history, there are numerous different versions. Maria Stuarda is well endowed with expressive and vocally attractive melodies, several of which anticipate Verdi, whose first opera was only four years away at the time of the initial performances in Milan. The opera follows the conventions of the day with its succession of arias, duets and ensembles, which in lesser hands tend to describe emotional reaction rather than dramatic action. Donizetti convincingly demonstrates his mastery of Italian romanticism by creating musical themes and structures which perfectly articulate both the dramatic moment and the emotional sense. Nowhere is this more so than in the confrontation between the two queens, which for impact compares well with Schiller’s original, and which served as the model for several other famous operatic encounters, such as those between Aida and Amneris, La Gioconda and Laura, and Adriana Lecouvreur and the Princesse de Bouillon.



CD 1

Act 1

The Palace of Westminster

[1] The opera opens with an orchestral introduction.

[2] A tournament is being held in honour of the French Ambassador, who has come on behalf of the King of France to ask for Queen Elizabeth’s hand in marriage.

[3] Elizabeth recognizes the political advantages for England in the proposed marriage, which would unite the thrones of England and France.

[4] However, she is torn between her duty to her people and her secret love for another man, the Earl of Leicester. Talbot takes advantage of the festivities to plead for mercy for Mary Stuart, but Cecil urges Elizabeth to send Mary to the execution block.

[5] Elizabeth prays for guidance: she may be merciful, but also threatens vengeance if, as she suspects, Mary is in love with Leicester.

[6] Leicester enters and Elizabeth entrusts him with a ring, asking him to tell the French ambassador that she will accept the hand of the French king in marriage, but reserves the right to change her mind. She then departs, together with her courtiers.

[7] Leicester and Talbot stay behind and talk privately. Talbot tells Leicester that he has been to Fotheringay Castle and has seen Mary Stuart. After confirming that he can trust Leicester, Talbot gives him a letter and a portrait sent by Mary.

[8] Leicester sings of the beauty of Mary, and of his adoration of her.

[9] Leicester declares that he would like to free her from captivity, even if it may mean his own death.

[10] Talbot leaves, and as Leicester is preparing to depart, he meets Queen Elizabeth. She notices his confusion and asks him if he has received a message from Mary Stuart. Leicester gives her the letter from Mary, in which Mary requests a meeting with Elizabeth. Elizabeth reflects on how Mary’s position has changed since she claimed the three crowns of Scotland, France and England. She asks Leicester if he is in love with Mary, as the Court suspects.

[11] Leicester describes Mary’s beauty in passionate words.

[12] Elizabeth agrees to meet with Mary, but aside, while Leicester pleads for her to show pity to Mary, she sings that having failed to secure the English crown from her, Mary is is now seeking to deprive her (Elizabeth) of the one she loves. The act ends with Elizabeth exulting that Mary has been brought low.

Act 2

The grounds of Fotheringay Castle

[13] In the grounds of Fotheringay Castle Mary is rejoicing in the beauty of the flowers and the breeze, accompanied by Anna, her lady-in-waiting.

[14] Mary sings of her sorrow at her enforced exile from her beloved France. Sounds of a hunt are heard and Mary realizes that Queen Elizabeth is hunting in the castle grounds.

[15] Mary becomes apprehensive at the thought of an encounter with Elizabeth: although she has asked to do so, she does not feel that she has the strength to meet her.

[16] As Mary is about to leave, she is overjoyed to see Leicester. She asks him if she will be set free. Leicester confirms that Elizabeth is coming to see her under the pretext of the hunt, and suggests that Mary must be submissive toward her.

[17] Mary laments her situation: only Leicester’s love has any meaning for her. Leicester responds by urging her not to despair, and holds out the hope that Elizabeth may spare her. Mary is not convinced. Leicester swears vengeance should Elizabeth prove deaf to Mary’s pleas.

[18] Mary is appalled at the thought of Leicester risking his life for her sake. She leaves and Leicester goes to receive Elizabeth.

[19] Elizabeth enters. She is disconcerted at the thought of having to meet Mary. Once more Cecil urges her to execute Mary, while Leicester urges her to comfort Mary. Elizabeth is secretly angry that Leicester can only think of Mary, who now enters.

[20] Overcoming her reluctance to speak to Elizabeth, Mary kneels at her feet and asks for her forgiveness and pity.

[21] Elizabeth repulses her and taunts her, accusing her of treachery. Leicester tries to console Mary and pleads for Elizabeth to show some mercy to Mary. Elizabeth now turns her scorn on him. Overcome with anger, Mary insults Elizabeth, calling her the ‘wanton daughter of Anne Boleyn’ and worse.

[22] Elizabeth calls for guards to arrest Mary and in great anger tells her to prepare for death. Mary rejoices at what she sees as her triumph over Elizabeth, while Talbot, Leicester and Anna express horror at the inevitable consequence of Mary’s outburst. Cecil, however, glories in Mary’s fate.

CD 2

Act 3

Scene 1: The Palace of Westminster (as for Act 1)

[1] Elizabeth hesitates over signing Mary’s death warrant, although urged to do so by Cecil. He tells her that England would applaud her if Mary was executed. Duly encouraged, Elizabeth decides to sign the warrant.

[2] But Elizabeth still holds back, frightened by the loss of tranquillity which she fears Mary’s death will incur for her. Cecil seeks to encourage her to be bold and to sign the document.

[3] Leicester enters and Elizabeth hurriedly signs Mary’s death warrant, in the face of Leicester’s entreaties for mercy. Elizabeth, supported by Cecil, not only rejects his pleas but tells him that he must witness Mary’s execution.

[4] Elizabeth urges Leicester to prepare himself for Mary’s death; Leicester is duly horrified at Elizabeth’s decision, while Cecil commends her for her regal act.

Scene 2: Mary’s private room in Fotheringay Castle

[5] Mary recalls Elizabeth’s hatred of her, and worries for Leicester’s safety. Cecil and Talbot enter with Mary’s death warrant. Cecil offers her the comfort of an Anglican priest, which Mary rejects with disdain. Cecil departs.

[6] Mary seeks comfort from Talbot, who tells her that Leicester has been commanded by Elizabeth to witness Mary’s execution. Mary recalls her troubled history, imagining that she sees the phantoms of Darnley and Rizzio, before Talbot reveals to her that he has come as a Catholic priest to hear Mary’s final confession.

[7] Mary thankfully pours out her soul, recalling happier times before her current predicament. Talbot urges her to confess all her sins before offering her forgiveness, which Mary gratefully receives.

[8] Talbot promises Mary joy in the after-life while Mary protests her innocence of sin. Supported by Talbot she leaves, clutching a crucifix.

Scene 3: The Hall next to the place of execution at Fotheringay Castle.

[9] Mary’s faithful servants are gathered together in the room next to the execution chamber. They express horror at the sight of the instruments of death, and fear that Mary’s death will bring shame to England.

[10] Anna begs them not to make Mary’s misery greater, and they promise to be silent as Mary enters, accompanied by Talbot. Mary salutes them, saying that she is going to a better life.

[11] Mary prays to God for forgiveness, and is joined in her supplications by Anna, Talbot and her servants.

[12] The first cannon shot, which signals the imminence of her death, is heard. Cecil enters and asks Mary if she has a final wish. Mary replies with the request that Anna be permitted to accompany her to the execution block, to which Cecil agrees.

[13] Encouraged by Cecil’s mercy, Mary offers her forgiveness to Elizabeth, with the wish that she may be happy on the English throne.

[14] Leicester enters in a state of great distress. The second, and final, cannon shot is heard. While Mary seeks to restrain Leicester, he curses Cecil.

[15] Mary summons Leicester to her side, and expresses the hope that her death will not lead to divine vengeance. Leicester, Talbot, Anna and Mary’s servants express admiration at her fortitude, while Cecil considers the peace that Mary’s death will bring to England. Sustained by Talbot, Mary walks through to the execution room, while Leicester averts his gaze.

David Patmore

Close the window