Relive the Tale of Two Queens -- Thanks to Donizetti!


Seattle Opera's 2016 Mary Stuart production. Photo credit: Jacob F. Lucas

What better theme could there be for an opera than the intense rivalry for the English throne between two real-life queens: Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I of England? It is hard to imagine a more compelling story. Gaetano Donizetti must have thought that when he created his opera Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart). This elaborate story, which ends with the sad demise of Mary, apparently captured his imagination along with the imagination of so many other writers, composers, and librettists over the centuries.

More than 20,000 books have appeared over the centuries about Mary's life. More recently there have been novels such as The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory, but one of the best-known adaptations of this story is the verse play Maria Stuart by the famous German poet Friedrich Shiller. His play, which premiered in 1800, served as the basis for Donizetti's tragic opera (tragedia lirica) in two acts: Maria Stuarda.

Productions like Seattle Opera's recent premiere of Maria Stuarda ( Mary Stuart) allow the audience to re-live history. The lavish production features sumptuous 16th-century costumes, complete with ornate and delicate details found in the Tudor era, which help place the action in historical context and put the rival queens at the center of Donizetti's thrilling opera.

Schiller invented the confrontation of the two queens, who by all accounts never actually met. His idea to juxtapose the two queens onstage highlights the drama between these two powerful women. Thanks to Donizetti's use of this plot device from Schiller's play, the audience is able to re-live the events of the protracted battle to control the crown of England in the brief period of time encompassed by the opera.

It is easy to get caught up in the confrontation between these two queens, yet looming in the background throughout the opera is the knowledge of the final sacrifice that Mary must make. She was ultimately imprisoned in Fotheringhay Castle, where she was condemned to execution.

Perhaps one of the more compelling aspects of her story is the grace that she showed in the face of adversity up to the very moment of her death, when she forgave her executioners. Mary's bravery in the face of certain death is exemplified by the famous quote "Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England". Her sage words to her captors are hauntingly relevant even today given the modern context where events within one country can have sweeping impacts on the whole world. Is it any wonder her story has had such staying power?

Thanks to Donizetti's beautiful opera and the exquisite staging of his work by companies like the Seattle Opera, audiences of today can experience the incredible drama of the two queens and the redemption that Mary finds in the end.

There is so much more to know about this dramatic story, as well as about the history of Donizetti's opera. Here and
here are some helpful links to learn more.