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This opera can be a little bit weird if you start thinking about it too hard. For one thing, it’s very much one of those nineteenth-century ‘history with the politics taken out’ operas. (I am going to talk about only the opera here, not Schiller’s play, or else we will be here all morning.) Taking the politics out of history can be a tricky thing. In this instance, what it does is flatten the complicated confessional and dynastic politics of the late sixteenth century into a story about romantic jealousy. Or something.
Mary (the Houston Opera decided to anglicize ‘Maria’, so I will too) is the heroine of this opera because she is the queen who is in prison. She holds no power and she’s not threatening. If you do not pay close attention to the libretto you might easily emerge with the impression that Mary got locked up for being too pretty. But this is not The Magdalene Sisters. This is an opera about Mary Stuart, and, well, historically there was a case to be made for locking up Mary Stuart.
The short version of Mary’s life is that she became the Queen of Scots when her father died just a few days after she was born. She was raised in France, betrothed and married to the young man who later became Francis II, who died, and then Mary went back to Scotland, where depending upon your perspective she either got into or caused trouble for the next ten years — Scotland was kind of gnarly in the sixteenth century — at which point she was ousted by some of her nobles and forced to abdicate in favor of her young son, James VI (not the son of the king of France – she had married again on returning to Scotland) and later fled to England, where Elizabeth was reasonably polite to her (pace Schiller, the two never met in person) but there was this little confessionally-inflected difficulty involving Elizabeth’s right to the English throne.
If you were a certain sort of sixteenth-century Catholic, Elizabeth was illegitimate and had no real claim to the throne. Mary was that sort of Catholic. More than that, she was next in line – the two were second cousins. (Do not make me look this up: I think that Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry VII’s sister Margaret was married to Mary’s grandfather James IV of Scotland but I would not swear to this without checking first.) Mary was fairly serious about this claim, and there were some Catholics in England who were unhappy enough with the Protestant turn things had taken in England since 1558 that they were willing to back her up. Between the late 1560s and 1587 when Mary was executed there were several abortive attempts to either free Mary Stuart or free her and place her on the English throne. She was a focus of conspiracy — or at least Elizabeth and her inner circle, particularly William Cecil, came to believe that she was. Assessing what Mary did or did not do in terms of political plotting is tricky, but it can be safely said that whatever she did, she didn’t do it very well. Elizabeth agonized over executing Mary — the latter was, after all, a fellow queen, and one didn’t want to set any precedents — and there is a story that after she signed the death warrant she changed her mind and tried to get whoever had it to come back but Cecil and others basically pretended not to get this order and the execution went on as planned. Or possibly Elizabeth intended that they should pretend not to get the order to revoke the warrant so she could have her cake (no more Mary!) and eat it too (but she didn’t really want to kill her!). Elizabeth was like that.
Most of this is not in Donizetti’s opera. Mary’s involvement in various pieces of fairly dodgy business is reduced to a reference to “forged” letters that goes by quickly enough that you might not even notice it, and a mention in Act III of the death of David Rizzio, a courtier very close to Mary who her nobles really disliked and who was murdered I believe right in front of her. Mary tells Talbot that she feels guilty, and that tears and blood will atone for her sins, but the opera fudges the question of whatever it was that she did.
And in a way the opera sort of has to fudge this question. Partly because nineteenth-century Italian censors were, well, nineteenth-century Italian censors, but partly because of the way this opera is set up. The confessional and dynastic politics are, as I said, flattened. It’s a drama that turns on Elizabeth’s jealousy of Mary, with whom Liz’s close friend/lover/whatever Leicester is supposedly in love. Or something. The chorus presses in Act I for Mary to be freed, and in Act III they are all crossing themselves and praying with her. Leicester pleads for her life and Cecil, the one who consistently tells Elizabeth to kill Mary, is the heavy. The opera is firmly on Mary’s side of whatever this conflict might be said to be about. The tension between Elizabeth and Mary is played as ‘feminine’ rivalry – personal insults about ancestry and/or prior sexual behavior. (Although the part where Liz basically calls Mary a skank is kind of awesome.)
And there is this persistent thing in the opera about them being ‘sisters’ and Elizabeth’s fault ultimately being a failure of sympathy. The ‘sisters’ thing is in the libretto – ‘sisters’ in the sense of fellow queens, not literal sisters. This Houston production comes close to implying that Elizabeth has failed a kind of female solidarity test – the opera opens with two small girls dressed roughly as Elizabeth and Mary will later be dressed, one of which hands the other a wreath. Little Mary reappears, sitting down in the snow that falls during “o nube che lieve,” and I think Little Elizabeth also reappears, with the wreath, in Act III during the chorus that precedes the last scene where Mary goes to her death. Elizabeth is on stage at this point in a way that indicates she is not happy with her decision to kill Mary. Is the implication that they would much rather deal with one another simply and easily but that circumstances prevent it? I am not sure about that.
This is probably the trouble with Maria Stuarda as an opera. It can be a bit clunky dramatically (I never noticed this before yesterday, but Act III is this series of stacked climaxes that should each outdo the previous but they don’t necessarily, even when the opera is performed well) but more than this, the opera involves a kind of collision between its ostensible subject matter on the one hand and nineteenth-century operatic politics (and assumptions about gender) on the other, from which it doesn’t really ever recover. Hearing it on CD and now seeing it performed, my impression of this work is of Donizetti striving to get somewhere he doesn’t quite get. This opera wants to be bigger than it is, somehow. The politics have been taken out of the libretto, and the music is not quite complex enough to smuggle them back in again.