Maria Stuarda, based Schiller’s tragedy of the same name, is nowadays recognised as one of Donizetti’s greatest achievements.  Yet it had a most chequered career in the century in which it was written.

Donizetti composed it in 1834, the year before Lucia di Lammermoor, with the intention that it fulfil a contract with the Teatro S. Carlo in Naples.  On the morning following the dress rehearsal it was, however, unexpectedly banned.  No reason was given, but speculation ran riot, many people suspecting it was because Maria Cristina, the young wife of Ferdinand II of Naples, was a descendant of Mary Queen of Scots and found the subject too sensitive.  More responsible conjecture, on the other hand, correctly saw the prohibition as part of a wider attempt on the part of the king and his ministers to curb the number of tragic operas which were being written and performed, especially on gala occasions, when, as they believed, the subjects chosen should fill the audiences’ minds with happy and patriotic thoughts, and should not distress them with tales of man’s inhumanity to man.

In the decades that followed, the legend of Queen Maria Cristina’s hyper-sensitivity neverthless persisted, and the story was elaborated to the point where it was claimed that she had attended the dress rehearsal and had found the scene of Mary’s last confession so unbearably moving that she fainted in her box.  There is, we must insist, no contemporary evidence to support this story whatsoever, yet for many years fiction proved stronger than truth.    Finally rebuffed in 1976, it is still frequently to be found today, still presented as the ‘gospel truth’ it emphatically is not.

In passing, we may note that the prohibition in Naples did not release Donizetti from his contract.  The management promptly engaged another librettist to prepare a text on a different subject, Buondelmonte, and to concoct new words to fit the already-existing items of Maria Stuarda.  As for Donizetti, he was obliged to compose new recitatives, to supply a new duet and a new chorus (both ‘borrowed’ from earlier works), and generally to see his music forced into service in situations which were often totally unrelated to those of Maria Stuarda. As he himself ruefully remarked, a prayer became a scene of conspiracy, while at the end of the opera it was the tenor who died, not the soprano.  The wonder is that Buondelmonte, produced on 18 October 1834, proved sufficiently viable to survive six performances.

Denied the possibility of seeing Maria Stuarda staged in Naples in its original form, Donizetti waited some four to five months and then persuaded the impresario of La Scala, Milan, to accept it for performance with the great mezzo-soprano of the day, Maria Malibran, in the part of Mary.  It duly received its premiere at La Scala on 30 December 1835.

The omens for this premiere were good, and expectations ran high.  In England earlier in the year Malibran had visited Westminster Abbey and made sketches of the costumes she saw depicted upon the royal tombs.  And as the time for the premiere approached, she became ever more involved in her role.  Yet on the actual night both she and the singer engaged as Queen Elizabeth, Giacinta Puzzi-Toso, were off-colour and ‘voiceless’, unable, in modern parlance, ‘to deliver’.  Malibran also had a well-deserved reputation for being a wilful and obstinate prima donna.  The censors, only too well aware of what had happened in Naples, were anxious to tone down some of the more extreme language of the libretto and disguise some of the religious elements of the plot.  Mary, they insisted, should not be allowed to vilify Queen Elizabeth during their fictional encounter in Fotheringhay Park as a ‘vil bastarda’.  Nor should she be permitted to kneel to Talbot during the confession scene.  And so the list continued.  Malibran’s uncooperative response was to declare that she could not think of so many things at once.  She insisted on singing the role as it had been written and as she had prepared it, with the result that, after seven complete performances and four of the first act on its own, Maria Stuarda was again prohibited.

Such a double disaster – in Naples and in Milan – effectively sealed the opera’s fateThere were, it must be conceded, a number of attempts to stage it in the following years, but they were for the most part provincial productions with performers of lesser note.  Certainly they failed to secure it either popularity or a place in the repertoire.  The last revival took place in Naples in 1865, with a few performances still lingering over into 1866.  But by this time the operatic climate was, in any case, no longer propitious to Donizetti’s style of writing.  The popularity of the operas of Verdi, more vigorous and less belcantistico, was by this time driving all the operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini – apart from a very few entrenched masterpieces – from the stage.

Maria Stuarda remained unheard for over 90 years, until it received its first modern revival in Bergamo in 1958.  And at this point its fortunes finally began to change.  In the years that have followed it has been produced on many, many occasions and seen widely round the world.  It has several times been recorded and may be heard on CD and seen on DVD.  Of all the operas which the ‘Donizetti revival’ of the last sixty years has brought forward for reconsideration, this, more than any other, has secured a place in the standard repertoire and, especially in its inspired final scenes, has been acknowledged as one of its composer’s most sensitive and moving scores.

Jeremy Commons