By Lynne Gray, PhD
Tuesday, April 28
Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda ~ 2Hrs and 41Mins
Starring Elza van den Heever, Joyce DiDonato, and Matthew Polenzani, conducted by Maurizio Benini. From January 19, 2013.
Joyce DiDonato gives an absolutely stellar performance as Mary, Queen of Scots in Donizetti’s second great bel canto drama from his ‘Three Queens’ series. Elza van den Heever as Queen Elizabeth is suitably evil (after all, this one is from Mary’s point of view) and sings wonderfully. Matthew Polenzani is Leicester, the man supposedly caught between the rival queens. Maurizio Benini conducts.
Historically, the conflict between the two women was largely political — Mary (and all her relatives) certainly did have designs on the English throne, but only much later was she actually accused of being involved in one of the (many) plots to assassinate Elizabeth. In opera, however, passion tends to play better than politics, so a tense romantic conflict between the two powerful women was imagined.
Mary’s actual history – and the history of the generations of political machinations and religious struggles between England, France and Scotland are far too complex to detail here – but in a nutshell, Mary’s father (King James V of Scotland, whose mother happened to be Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister) died as Mary was being born. Therefore, she became Queen of Scotland within a year of her birth – and was immediately caught up in her mother’s (and her French and English royal relative’s) plots, first to make her the English Queen and when that failed, to make her the French Queen. When the deal made with Henry VIII for Mary to be raised in England and wed his only son, Edward, fell through, Mary was sent to France to be raised in the French court as the intended for the French Dauphin, Francis. She indeed became Queen Consort of France (at 16), but King Francis died within 2 years and with no heir, the French throne went to his younger brother.
At nearly the same time, Henry VIII’s elder daughter, Mary I of England, was succeeded by her only surviving sibling, Elizabeth I. Because Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, had been beheaded and her marriage annulled, Elizabeth was considered illegitimate by many and her hold on power was shaky. In the eyes of many Catholics, not only was Elizabeth illegitimate, but Mary Stuart was the rightful queen of England, as the senior surviving legitimate descendant of Henry VII through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor. (Are you following?) The seed of the opera’s (fictional) love triangle occurred when Elizabeth attempted to neutralize Mary by suggesting that she marry English Protestant Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. Dudley was the English queen’s own favorite, whom Elizabeth trusted and thought she could control, and so also control Mary — but Dudley refused.
Back in Scotland, Mary’s reign was troubled by religious struggles between Protestant lairds (aligned with England) whom she could not control, and the Catholic nobles (aligned with France). Her second marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, her first cousin, was frowned upon by both Catholics and Protestants and rebellions broke out. Darnley became arrogant, wanting the throne as Co-Regent, and was mysteriously murdered – some say by Mary’s third husband, the scheming Lord Bothwell. By 1567, Mary was imprisoned, forced to abdicate and to beg her cousin Elizabeth I for refuge in England. She expected Elizabeth to help her regain her throne, but the cautious Elizabeth instead put her under house arrest – essentially for the remaining 20 years of her life, before Elizabeth did execute her. However, Mary and Lord Darnley had the last laugh. They (apparently) produced an heir and their son, James VI of Scotland, became James I of England upon the death of Elizabeth I. Phew!
Okay then – the opera begins in 1587, at the Palace of Westminster where Elizabeth has just received a marriage proposal from the Dauphin François. (The British and the French are each still trying to establish control over both kingdoms through marriage!) Elizabeth is reluctant to give up her ‘freedom’ and even more reluctant to pardon her cousin, Mary (who still maintains ties with her French relatives). When Elizabeth tells her ‘favorite’ – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, that she plans to marry the Dauphin, Robert does not react and thereby begins to fuel her jealousy. When Robert later approaches Elizabeth again with a letter from Mary proposing a reconciliation meeting, she’s clearly even more 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 this scene, Robert has hopes that Elizabeth and Mary will reconcile, while the vindictive Elizabeth is determined to punish Mary for stealing Robert’s heart. Matters only worsen from here.
Mary is seen peacefully walking alone in the woods, when to her surprise Leicester appears to warn her of Elizabeth’s impending arrival, and to counsel her to behave with deference. At first, Mary is able to control herself, but Elizabeth is aloof and insulting, accusing Mary of murder, treason and debauchery. Brutally stung by Elizabeth’s accusations, Mary calls Elizabeth “Figlia impura di Bolena” (“Impure daughter of Boleyn”). Robert’s attempts to calm both women further enrage Elizabeth.
Not being able to stop there, Mary seals her own fate by going even further with “Profanato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!” (“The English throne is sullied, vile bastard, by your foot”). Elizabeth counters with, “The axe that awaits you will show my revenge”.
The rest, as they say, is history. Leicester’s pleas for mercy for Mary are to no avail and result in his being commanded to witness the execution in person. Like Anne Boleyn’s execution in last night’s opera, Mary’s is treated with great sympathy by Donizetti. She is both brave and magnanimous in the end – “Di un cor che more reca il perdóno” / “From a heart that is dying, may pardon be granted.” And we have yet another magnificent soprano death …. DiDonato will have you believing in her every minute of the way!
1. Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
2. Scene One from “Maria Stuarda” at the Met with Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth I. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
3. Joyce DiDonato as the title character and Matthew Polenzani as Leicester in “Maria Stuarda” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
4. Elza van den Heever and Joyce DiDonato in “Maria Stuarda” at the Metropolitan Opera. Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
5. Joyce DiDonato in “Maria Stuarda” at the Metropolitan Opera. Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.