With his sharp and lively conducting, Fabrizio Maria Carminati puts the Orchestra of the Teatro La Fenice entirely at the service of three exceptional singers, Sonia Ganassi ("an extraordinary performance," Opera Today) as Elisabetta, Fiorenza Cedolins ("colorful, nuanced, highly dramatic heroine," Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) as Maria Stuarda, and José Bros as a passionate Leicester. "Maria Stuarda" is the most popular work in Donizetti's trilogy of bel canto operas on Tudor queens.
In its original form, Maria di Rohan was without doubt the most audacious result – pre-Verdi – of aesthetic transformation beyond the courtly dramas of “long Italian classicism”. The opera’s intrigue develops like an unstoppable machine: the fatal triangle formed by Maria, Chalais and Chevreuse being the work of Richelieu’s absolute power (despite never appearing on stage). Like trapped animals, the characters hopelessly search for a way out, and they devour each other in turn. Recorded at the Bergamo Donizetti Festival, October 2011, this is the first DVD release of Donizetti’s 1843 opera.
Cammarano’s horrific libretto is given some of Donizetti’s most beautiful music. After eloping with her lover and being deserted by him, Maria is believed dead but returns home to discover her father has died and left everything to her cousin Matilde. Maria’s ex-lover stabs her and again Maria is believed dead, but in the gripping final scene – a gift for a soprano – Maria stabs Matilde and then confronts Corrado, telling him in her dying moments that she still loves him. This scene alone was enough to ensure many productions throughout Italy and Europe in Donizetti’s lifetime and beyond.
The most enduring number from this opera was the duet of Maria and her sister Ines, which became a popular concert piece in the 19th century. Maria is the mistress of Pedro the Cruel of Castile. Her father, Ruiz, discovers the identity of her lover and, burdened by shame, loses his reason. Donizetti rises to this dramatic challenge, writing a poignant mad scene – this time for a tenor voice. This was a very successful opera for Donizetti, written in 1841.
Maria Stuarda is one third of the so-called "three queen" trilogy that defined much of the career of Beverly Sills (along with Lucia, the three Hoffmann heroines, and Manon) in the early 1970s. It was quite an undertaking, and each–Stuarda, Anna Bolena, and Roberto Devereux–was recorded by the since-disapppeared ABC Audio Treasury Series. For reasons opera lovers have been wondering about for years, the recordings went out of print pretty quickly; but now, handsomely remastered, they are making their first appearance on CD, both individually and as a three-opera set. Stuarda also has been recorded by Joan Sutherland and Janet Baker (in a version Donizetti prepared for the lower-voiced Maria Malibran), and there are at least three "private" sets I know of with Montserrat Caballé in the title role.
On New Year’s Eve 2012 Joyce DiDonato became the first singer to take the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. With her at its heart, the production became, in the words of Opera magazine, “a high point of the season and of the company’s performance history of bel canto operas”.
This opera becomes a battle of the divas in its great second act, with Sutherland, as Mary Stuart, pitted against the jealous, paranoid, and vengeful Elizabeth I (Tourangeau). There is an intensely dramatic confrontation in which insults are violently exchanged between the powerful monarch and her imprisoned but still regal rival to the throne. Mary wins the battle of insults, but this is a dangerous victory over one who has the power of life and death. Elizabeth orders Mary's execution and Act III becomes a spectacle of pathos and horror. Sutherland's usual style is more attuned to pathos than to the swapping of insults, but she rises splendidly to the challenges of Act II and she has a splendid supporting cast. (Joe McLellan)
How this opera grows in the affections. And how it strengthens the larger, ever-deepening appreciation not merely of Donizetti's work but of operatic conventions as such. I mean that the frequently derided forms of opera (the set pieces, aria-and-cabaletta and so forth) can increasingly be a source of pleasure and of perceived power in the writing. Here, for instance, part of the exhilaration arises out of the composer's skill in suiting the conventions to his dramatic and musical purposes. Elizabeth's first aria, meditatively hopeful yet anxious, fits the lyric-cantabile form; then the arrival of Talbot and Cecil with their opposing influences provokes the intensified turbulence of irresolution that makes dramatic sense out of the cabaletta. It is so with the duets and ensembles: they look like conventional set-pieces, but established form and specific material have been so well fitted that, with the musical inspiration working strongly (as it is here), you have opera not in its naive stage awaiting development towards freedom from form but, on the contrary, opera at the confident height of a period in its history when it was entirely true to itself.
Two queens on one island. A recipe for disaster. Especially as both have a legitimate claim to the other’s throne. They are, after all, related… So the power politics are the name of the game. And, for reasons of state, one of the heads that wears a crown has to roll…
The composition of Maria Stuarda was fraught with complications. After the completion of Lucrezia Borgia in 1833 the librettist Felice Romani withdrew from further collaborations and Donizetti, who was already contracted for a production at San Carlo in Naples, more or less in panic engaged the amateur poet Giuseppe Bardari in Romani’s place. The music was composed during the summer of 1834 and in September the dress rehearsal took place. The following day, however, the King of Naples cancelled the performance of the opera on the grounds that ‘the presentation of operas and ballets of tragic arguments should always be prohibited’. Donizetti reworked his opera into Boundelmonte in less than a fortnight, the premiere took place on 14 October with the action moved from Tudor England to Renaissance Italy. It was not a success.– Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International