Quarreling Queens: Donizetti's 'Maria Stuarda' In real life, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart were political rivals. But in the opera house passion plays better than politics, so in Maria Stuarda, the two monarchs are also in love with the same man. In Mary's case, her passion proves deadly.
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Royal Opera of Wallonie on World of Opera -- 'Maria Stuarda'

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Quarreling Queens: Donizetti's 'Maria Stuarda'

Quarreling Queens: Donizetti's 'Maria Stuarda'

From the Royal Opera of Wallonie

Royal Opera of Wallonie on World of Opera -- 'Maria Stuarda'

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  • Patrizia Ciofi ............. Mary Stuart
  • Marianna Pizzolata .... Elizabeth I
  • Danilo Formaggia ........... Robert
  • Federico Sacchi .............. Talbot
  • Mario Cassi ...................... Cecil
  • Diana Axentii ................... Anna
  • Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Luciano Acocella, conductor


In the final act, Mary Stuart forgives Elizabeth for condemning her, in the aria "D'un cor che muore" — "From a dying heart." Patrizia Ciofi sings Mary in the Royal Opera of Wallonie production.

Royal Opera of Wallonie on World of Opera -- 'Maria Stuarda'

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The "B Side"

In Act One, Elizabeth wavers when considering Mary's fate, in the aria "Ah, dal ciel descenda un raggio" — "May heaven send a ray of light." The chorus interrupts to urge pity, but Lord Cecil says pity can be dangerous.

Royal Opera of Wallonie on World of Opera -- 'Maria Stuarda'

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Elizabeth I condemns Mary Stuart to death, in Maria Stuarda from Liege. The two monarchs are played by Marianna Pizzolato (left, as Elizabeth) and Patrizia Ciofi. J.Croisier hide caption

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There may not be many connections between 21st-century, American country music and 19th-century, Italian opera. But, as it turns out, there is a link between Gaetano Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and, of all groups, the Dixie Chicks.

During a 2003 concert in London, the Dixie Chicks' lead singer, Natalie Maines, made some unflattering comments about the Bush adminstration's Iraq policies — and about President George W. Bush himself. Immediately, the band found itself in political — and musical — hot water. Many radio stations stopped playing their songs. Former fans urged a boycott of the group's music. A few outraged music lovers even gathered up Dixie Chicks CDs to be smashed by a bulldozer. All the while, there was little support from the music industry and the group's popularity sagged.

Three years later, the Dixie Chicks came back firing — with the album Taking the Long Way, featuring a pointed song called "Not Ready to Make Nice." Many fans were still leery, and the disc didn't get much airplay — but it did top 3 different Billboard charts, and won five Grammies.

As it happens, more than 175 years earlier, Gaetano Donizetti and one of his lead singers found themselves in a similar controversy over Maria Stuarda — an opera about two chicks who also weren't ready to make nice.

The drama, written late in 1834, centers on the historical conflict between Queen Elizabeth I of England and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. In the opera, those two royal women engage in some less than aristocratic behavior. Elizabeth sets the tone by referring to Mary as "treacherous." Mary then ramps up the rhetoric by calling the Elizabeth a "vile bastard" who "defiles the soil of England."

As the story goes, when the opera was about to be launched in Naples the singers playing the two lead roles actually came to blows during that climactic scene. The authorities caught wind of this and had a look at the opera's libretto and the king promptly banned the piece.

Donizetti decided to take his opera to Milan. He made a few changes, as demanded by the Milanese censors, and premiered the opera there. And that's where his lead singer joins the story. The role of Mary was sung by the immensely popular soprano Maria Malibran. She didn't much like bending to the will of the censors, and apparently felt that Donizetti's original version of the opera was fine just as it was. So that's exactly what she sang, defying the censors in the process. Upper-crusters in the audience reacted badly, and the opera was banned all over again.

Still, like the Dixie Chicks, Donizetti and Malibran were already stars. And in the long run, a bit of controversy over rudely portrayed political leaders may have made the composer and diva even more popular than they were before.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Maria Stuarda from the Royal Opera of Wallonie in Liege, Belgium, starring sopranos Patrizia Ciofi and Marianna Pizzolato as the feuding monarchs, Mary and Elizabeth.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of 'Maria Stuarda'

Mary Stuart (soprano Patrizia Ciofi) is arrested for treason after insulting Queen Elizabeth I, in Donizett's 'Maria Stuarda.' J. Croisier hide caption

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J. Croisier

In the opera's final scene, the axeman leads Mary Stuart (Patrizia Ciofi) off to be executed. hide caption

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ACT ONE: As the action begins, Queen Elizabeth I is under pressure to marry the Dauphin of France. The marriage would help to solidify the relationship between France and England, and would also counter what the English see as a troublesome alliance between France and Scotland.

But there's a problem. Elizabeth is already in love with Robert, the Earl of Leicester. At court, Robert is approached by Talbot, another English nobleman. Talbot hands Robert a letter from Mary Stuart, who is being held prisoner at Fotheringhay castle. Talbot also tells Robert that Mary spoke of him affectionately — which obviously pleases Robert, who also has feelings for Mary. Through the letter, Mary hopes to arrange a meeting with Elizabeth.

Historically, the conflict between the two women was largely political — Mary had designs on the English throne, and was accused of plots to assassinate Elizabeth. In opera, passion tends to play better than politics. So when Robert approaches Elizabeth about the proposed meeting, she's clearly jealous. Still, something in Mary's letter moves her — or at least seems to — and she agrees to a meeting. In the duet that ends the first act, Robert has hopes that Elizabeth and Mary will reconcile, while the vindictive Elizabeth is determined to punish Mary for stealing Robert's heart.

ACT TWO: At Fotheringhay, Mary is coming out of the woods with her companion, Anna. They're enjoying a fine, sunny day when some hunters appear and announce that Queen Elizabeth is approaching. Mary's mood quickly changes; she now dreads her possible meeting with Elizabeth.

In the next scene, Mary is alone in the castle when Robert enters. He tells her that Elizabeth is on her way. He also warns her that when they meet Mary must be submissive to the Queen. For her part, Mary now hopes she won't have to see Elizabeth at all, as she fears what the Queen might have in store for her. Robert tries to tell Mary that Elizabeth has become more sympathetic towards her but, even after a lengthy discussion, Mary is unconvinced.

When Elizabeth arrives, Robert is the first to greet her. He urges her to reconcile with Mary — but aside, Elizabeth says she still loathes her.

In the opera's pivotal scene, the two women finally meet. At first, Mary is deferential. Elizabeth responds by describing Mary as "vile and iniquitous." At that, Mary loses her temper. In a daring rant, she calls Elizabeth an "obscene, unworthy whore." And she doesn't stop there, adding that the queen is also a "vile bastard" who defiles the soil of England. The act ends as Mary is dragged away, and everyone seems to agree that she's pretty much sealed her own fate.

ACT THREE: Elizabeth is alone with her advisor, Lord Cecil, who can't believe that Mary is still alive after her treasonous outburst. After a brief consultation, Elizabeth concedes that Cecil has a point. She decides that Mary should die and signs the order for her execution.

Historically, Mary Queen of Scots has been portrayed as a woman who had designs on the English throne, and was beheaded for her trouble. The opera treats her more sympathetically. As the title suggests, she's the heroine: a charming, repentant young woman who's doomed, in large part, by her attraction to Robert, the man Elizabeth loves.

When Robert finds out what Elizabeth has commanded, he makes one last attempt to change her mind. Elizabeth dismissively sends him away, after ordering him to witness Mary's beheading.

The final scenes are devoted to Mary's last hours. She meets with Cecil, who delivers the order for her execution. She also speaks with the sympathetic nobleman Talbot, recalling her past and saying that when the throne of Scotland was taken from her, she came to Elizabeth seeking peace. But she also confesses to earlier crimes, including an association with people who plotted Elizabeth's assassination. Talbot says her truthfulness will win her God's forgiveness, and the opera portrays her as an innocent, facing death.

As Mary is joined by some friends, they hear the first of three cannon shots that will signal her beheading. She meets with Robert one last time — and the second shot is heard. Then, as she says last goodbyes to everyone, the third shot rings out, and the executioner leads Mary to the block.