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I'll Never Stop Saying Maria

When critics evaluate Donizetti's "Three Queens" trilogy, Maria Stuarda is often treated like a "vil bastarda" itself. As Dallas Opera prepares to open a production of the opera this month, IRA SIFF offers a spirited defense of this bel canto gloss on the final days of Mary, Queen of Scots.

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Queenmaker: Composer Donizetti, in a portrait by Giuseppe Rillosi
Back in the 1980s in New York, before the advent of the CD crowded the shelves at Tower Records with previously rare "pirated" live-performance and broadcast recordings, one could always tune in to Columbia University's WKCR on a Saturday night and listen to some of the marvels of the previous decades on Stefan Zucker's radio program, Opera Fanatic. One such evening, I tuned in and twenty minutes later realized I had been standing stock still in my living room, riveted into place by the final scene of Maria Stuarda, as sung by the "Queen of the Pirates," soprano Leyla Gencer.

It had taken a moment to realize what I was listening to; I knew two of Donizetti's other Tudor operas, Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux, very well, but I realized then that I had neglected Stuarda. Like so many, I had the vague impression that Maria was a weak sister of Anna and the Devereux Elisabetta. But that performance caused me to think again about this unusual and deeply rewarding work - Donizetti's forty-sixth opera, which deals with the final days and execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

With the bel canto revival in full swing in the 1960s, it was inevitable that the merits of Maria Stuarda would be discovered, and they were - in the thrilling Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production of 1967, starring Gencer and Shirley Verrett, and later, in the '70s, when Beverly Sills and her director, Tito Capobianco, created the perception of the "Tudor Trilogy" by their famous collaboration on all three works at New York City Opera. But Stuarda's merits are not always immediately evident to those who are comparing the three works; perhaps because of the gentler nature of this protagonist and the fact that Stuarda is really a two-diva opera, some listeners, and even singers, perceive Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux as stronger.

"But it's not true at all!" counters Leyla Gencer, who sang all three operas. "All three queens are very strong." Another criticism leveled at the opera is that Friedrich Schiller - whose 1800 play Maria Stuart inspired Donizetti's opera - rewrote history, and in adapting the play, Donizetti's inexperienced librettist, seventeen-year-old Giuseppe Bardari, strayed even further from fact. Actually, Schiller was a historian, but his view on historical fact was that it had to bend to the needs of great theater. In fact, for the sake of the structure of Romantic opera, all three of these Donizetti works employ a love triangle that didn't really exist, and of all of them Stuarda comes closest to fact. Leicester, loved in the opera by both Maria and Elisabetta, was Elizabeth's favorite and was also proposed by her as a possible spouse for her cousin Mary in 1563, more than two decades before the action of Maria Stuarda. But history per se is hardly the point of Romantic bel canto opera. "These queens are seen as Donizetti wished to see them," explains Gencer. "And so we must think on another level, not just precisely historic. They are very different, one from the other. Stuarda is the sweetest, let's say, most noble, and above all, she is the Catholic queen. She dies as a person of great faith. But one cannot make comparisons between the three. She isn't the palest one - she is one of the most beautiful, the most romantic. I find it unjust, absolutely, to define her as secondary. She's secondary because they play her in a secondary fashion! This role depends on the interpreter to render her important. All three queens can become extremely tedious if they're played badly. Donizetti is a very great composer, a creator of characters, who has never been entirely understood. He understood, felt, how different these queens were psychologically one from the other. I could say, even, that my favorite is Stuarda. The confrontation scene, when she rebels against Elisabetta, can pass into the history of Romantic opera as some of the most important pages. And you know, you will hear on the recording, that I don't sing, but I insult! And after that insult I get applause from the entire audience. Think of the scene of Maria's confession, and the final scene. These are exceptional, extraordinary pages, very beautiful. It gives one chills."

Sills and Tinsley in <I>Stuarda</i>
Beverly Sills and Pauline Tinsley as Maria and
Elisabetta in Tito Capobianco's 1972 production of
Maria Stuarda at New York City Opera

© Beth Bergman 2006
But Beverly Sills, whose desire to record and perform all three Donizetti queens brought these operas to New York audiences, sees it differently. "Well, if you do all three, you have a powerhouse Elizabeth I - probably the most powerful woman in the world - Anna Bolena, who was a very strong personality … and Maria, who was high-strung, and for whom everything was romantic and love. She's got two powerhouse words, and they're called 'vil bastarda,' and that's it. But the truth of the matter is that any time you have an opera with Elizabeth I in it, you're going to be overshadowed by the strength of that character. Frankly, Stuarda has more beautiful things to sing… and the way Tito [Capobianco] staged it for me! In the final scene he had her in that red dress, and there's a fermata in the score, which he took total advantage of, and had her rap three times on the side of the guillotine for the holy spirits, and then you saw the blade come down, and then a blackout! On the opening night, a woman screamed out, 'No, no!' But still, with Elizabeth there - and I was blessed, I had a wonderful English girl whose name was Pauline Tinsley, who not only had a voice of steel, but she looked like Elizabeth. And she had a powerhouse high E-flat, which she used to great avail - it didn't hurt her in the least bit! Because of the contrast, it made Maria much more vulnerable and easier to play, so that by the time the opera ended, the audience's sympathies were totally on Maria's side. I also had, aside from Eileen [Farrell] on the recording, Marisa Galvany as Elisabetta. I loved her. She also had a steel-like quality onstage. Between Tinsley and Galvany, you had your work cut out for you! They were both fearless. I liked singers like that. But if I hadn't sung the other two, I would have been a bit frustrated with Stuarda. I would have wanted to sing Elizabeth!"

Galvany says of Elizabeth, "You can sing her as a soprano or mezzo. I think it's delicious when two sopranos do the opera, and my voice was darker than Beverly's. The confrontation scene took on its own life. Sparks really flew, and the audience went crazy. I think it's a strong piece - not, perhaps, for the men, but for the women it has wonderful opportunities. It brings out Elizabeth's doubts, strengths and her feminine side. You can find various aspects to her character. One night, when I was deciding Maria's fate, I got really worked up at the pressure of sentencing her to death, and I banged on the table so hard the proclamation flew up in the air - and I caught it!"

Fortunately, Maria Stuarda has hardly been put on the shelf by contemporary opera producers; this month, it turns up as part of Dallas Opera's season. Karen Stone, Dallas's general director, feels that "Stuarda is the ultimate 'diva' opera. I love bel canto opera and many unknown Donizetti works, but Stuarda is certainly my preferred Tudor one. How many opportunities does a soprano have to scream 'Vil bastarda' at another one - onstage, during a performance, and loudly! How to top that scene? Donizetti manages it in one of the most poignant arias with chorus in the whole repertory, Maria's Act III prayer."

Mary Stuart
A portrait of Mary Stuart, later
Queen Mary I of Scotland, by
French Renaissance painter
François Clouet

These comments drive home the point that Romantic bel canto opera is performer-driven opera. And Stuarda is a brilliant case in point. Sills's 1971 recording offers a vivid interpretation of a headstrong romantic, and she lavishes upon it her plangent tone and florid virtuosity in the form of high-flying embellishments. Gencer, a champion of the composer, who delivers her Donizetti more come scritto, finds the meaning, as she puts it, "within the notes," using less decoration, achieving a towering portrayal. Both are stunning. It's a matter of the artist's gifts and the listener's taste. There is also room for Caballé, Sutherland and Gruberova, who all made Maria their own in different ways.

Another aspect of the opera that presents a challenge is the fact that Schiller's play deals only with the final days of Mary Stuart's life. Her tumultuous youth - her coronation as Queen of Scotland before her first birthday; her childhood betrothal to the Dauphin of France and her brief, teen-aged reign as French queen; her abdication of the Scots crown and her flight for refuge to England, where she was a virtual prisoner for the last nineteen years of her life - is well over by the time the action of the drama begins. The attendant intrigues and violent episodes of her reign as Queen of Scots - including the suspicious death of her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley - are only mentioned fleetingly in the confrontation and confession scenes of the opera. Therefore, Maria seems a more passive character, save her one outburst defying Elisabetta. She is a martyr to her faith, and her music defines her as such, through some of Donizetti's most noble melodies and imaginative harmonies. In contrast, Elisabetta's music harks back to Rossini; like the queen herself, it is more rigid but also has an inherent irony, even sarcasm to its nature. She may not be quite the complex Elisabetta of Devereux - the only Donizetti character I can think of who is awarded two entirely different verses of text in her final cabaletta - but neither is she one-dimensional.

What contemporary audiences may easily overlook, and what certainly resonated with Donizetti's public, is the opera's historical context. Both Elizabeth and Mary were direct descendants of the English king Henry VII; the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor was his granddaughter and Mary Stuart was his great-granddaughter - and principal Roman Catholic claimant to the English throne. To her supporters, Mary was also the principal legitimate claimant to the crown, as the Catholic Church did not recognize the validity of the marriage of Elizabeth's parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. As Mary Stuart's biographer Antonia Fraser has pointed out in The Donizetti Society Journal, the fictional Mary's hasty use of the epithet "vil bastarda" indicates not just the Scots queen's desire to insult her cousin but her desire to supplant her. And in one important sense, Mary did exactly that, for her descendants have served as England's kings and queens since the childless Elizabeth's death. At the time of Maria Stuarda's premiere, in 1834, a Protestant Hanover, William IV, occupied the English throne, but in Donizetti's Italy, Mary Stuart was still a powerful Catholic heroine to a Catholic audience. It is also important to stress that the face-to-face confrontation of the two queens, who never met in real life, was Schiller's invention, one that has been carried through in the numerous movie and television dramatizations of their lives - from John Ford's Mary of Scotland (1936), starring Katharine Hepburn, to the 1971 film Mary, Queen of Scots, with Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave as the sparring cousins, to the 2005 HBO series Elizabeth I, with Helen Mirren.

Although Stuarda must be assessed as the sum of its parts, Donizetti's writing for Maria alone qualifies this opera as a masterwork. Her entrance aria, "O nube! che lieve per l'aria," so full of nostalgia for France and freedom, introduces a more advanced Donizetti, and the cabaletta that follows, with its clipped upward phrases of nervous agitation, expresses perfectly Maria's fear of Elisabetta, who is approaching. In the course of composition, as Donizetti's involvement with Maria increased, so did his inspiration. When Leicester approaches, urging Maria to meet with the Queen, her agitation increases, but suddenly the nature of the music changes radically as Maria exits and the suspicious but far more contained Elisabetta appears. When Maria reluctantly returns, the Queen's hatred and jealousy are revealed as she launches the confrontation scene with the dismissive "È sempre la stessa" (She's always the same). Maria makes an effort at reconciliation, but her music lets us - and Elisabetta - know that her pride is intact, and the Queen responds by bringing up Maria's rather sordid past and suggesting that she has paid for Leicester's defense with sexual favors. This triggers Maria's loss of control and her brazen insults, hurled at the queen with minimal accompaniment, so that the outrageous text is heard in shocking relief. This coup de théâtre explodes into the thrilling stretta that ends the act. Through this celebrated confrontation scene, which subordinates strict musical structure to drama; the moving confession of her sins to her ally Talbot; and most notably the trio of arias comprising the final scene, Donizetti is ablaze with brilliance. Surely, the modulation to C major during Maria's prayer in E-flat, "Deh! Tu di unumile preghiera," is a stroke of genius, expressing perfectly her spiritual transcendence at that moment, as she sustains a long high G and ascends to A-flat and B-flat, while the melody returns to E-flat. And the choice of maestoso for her final cabaletta, rather than a rapid showpiece tempo, gives her last gesture of forgiveness as she goes to her death far more grandeur. Pale? Anything but.

IRA SIFF is a New York-based voice teacher, interpretation coach and stage director for opera. He performs as "traumatic soprano" Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh.

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