Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda: An opera with a troubled history returns

Irish National Opera’s production is first full staging with chorus, orchestra in Ireland

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda is an opera with a troubled performance history, a litany of misfortune that diverted attention from a piece that includes some of the composer’s best work.

There were delivery problems with the libretto, a headline-garnering fight between the first singers in the roles of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, and a last-minute ban imposed after the dress rehearsal at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in September 1834. The work was prohibited even though all the changes requested by the censor had been followed. King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies had intervened to shut it down.

The opera was rehashed and performed the following month as Buondelmonte. As Donizetti explained in a letter, “Change the words, use another subject ... A new duet and chorus are already pasted together; spurious recitatives are already copied out ... There were six characters? Now there are ten or more; What has become of the opera I’ll let you imagine. The same scenes are used, whether they fit or not; I try to avoid asking whether or not they damage the work.”

'The joy of wisdom is that we realise we know nothing as we get older'

Maria Stuarda did not make it before the public until December 1835, at La Scala in Milan, in a version with modifications to suit one of the great singers of the day, Maria Malibran, who sang the title role. Her opposite number in the role of Elizabeth withdrew, and the replacement was poor. Malibran, who was not well, chose to appear anyway, so that she could collect her fee.

For the fourth performance, the theatre took action, and presented just the first act of Maria Stuarda, stitched on to the second and third acts of Rossini’s Otello. Then, a week later, the opera was suspended after Malibran sang some original words (including “vile b*stard”) that had been banned by the censor (in favour of “vile woman”). And the final 19th-century production, in 1865, reconfigured material from Maria Stuarda that Donizetti had recycled in later and by then better-known operas.

That 1865 version was the basis for the first 20th-century revival in 1958 and remained in currency until material was discovered in the 1980s to make a critical edition possible.

Irish National Opera’s (INO) new production is the work’s first full staging with chorus and orchestra in Ireland. For INO’s artistic director Fergus Sheil, who also conducts the opera, it’s the realisation of a vision he’s had for 20 years.

"I was chorus master for a concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002 with Charles Mackerras conducting. I couldn't believe why this opera was not better known, because it was so full of musical richness." And he points to the bonus of have two such strong female roles.

I met up with him, along with soprano Anna Devin (who sings Elizabeth), mezzo-soprano (Tara Erraught, Mary) and director Tom Creed, in one of the company's regular rehearsal spaces, the Artane School of Music, where everyone involved with the production is still wearing masks.

Erraught was introduced to the work by her teacher, the late Veronica (Ronnie) Dunne, in a recording that was a gift from the great Australian soprano, Joan Sutherland, with whom Dunne had shared the stage in Covent Garden. "I found it interesting, but I knew it wasn't something I was going to sing for a long time. It wasn't something she had sung, either, so it wasn't a style we spent a lot of time working on together."

She wanted, as she puts it, “to wait until the voice was ready to play with it, and that I had learned enough to be able to bring enough colour to it. It’s certainly something I have on my ear for a very long time.” And she points out that the busy, continent-hopping singers of today have a work practice more akin to the careers of Donizetti’s day than the singers of Dunne’s generation.

Creed says he knew the Schiller play on which the opera is based more than the opera itself.

“Knowing the play and knowing something of the history, it was a really great opportunity to get this perspective on the story and to discover how Donizetti and his librettists found drama in it. And also interesting the way they carved the story out of the play, which had a large cast of characters, and boiled it down to these key relationships which are expressed through music. It’s been a real pleasure.”

Devin seems to have kept Donizetti rather at a distance. “I don’t listen to a lot of Donizetti. It’s not a score that I know. And then Fergus asked me to do it with Tara. I looked at it then. I wasn’t first necessarily drawn to the role of Elizabeth. I would have thought maybe I’ll sing Maria.

“But, as I’ve gotten older, and as I’ve gotten a chance to do more serious roles rather than the lighter sex-kittens, as they say, I’ve really enjoyed the more psychologically-driven characters that aren’t necessarily quite as secure. And playing with that is completely different to what I’ve done before.”

Although they were contemporaries in college, Devin and Erraught are working together professionally for the first time, even though, as Devin explains, “we’re hardly on stage together anyway. We’ve just got the one scene, and it’s a standoff.”

Sheil says the conducting is the “easy bit” and the big challenge was “finding the right two queens to do it, who were available and able to do it at the same time”. He talks of the roles being “in a kind of in-between land ... nobody really knows are they soprano or a mezzo-soprano roles”.

Devin describes herself as “a major extrovert,” who needs “somebody to play off to get my ideas flowing”. She presents herself as someone who comes to the rehearsal room having done all the necessary work and full of ideas, but without any conclusions.

“I used to be, I don’t know how to get this royalty and this vulnerability with this lover, I don’t really know how to play this. But one day in and I’m completely cool with it. I’m really excited about discovering more elements of her.”

Erraught says it’s her first ever role debut in Ireland, “Not something I ever thought I would have done. It’s a massively vulnerable position to put yourself in. Usually when I come home people expect fireworks and polish. Now I’m bringing them something that, character-wise, is not funny. So it’s also a very big character change. But I’m also not 21 any more. It’s time to bring something new to the public. I am both excited and nervous to do that.”

She has, she says, discerned a change in audiences on the continent, a change mediated by the experience of Covid that has made people a bit reclusive and withdrawn.

“And,” she says, “there’s a big weight and responsibility in coming home to sing anything, even if it’s Baa Baa Black Sheep.” Devin has been through the same feelings and says, “I just try not to think of it,” to which Erraught adds, “Which is probably much more clever.”

Creed hasn’t worked on an opera from this period before, though he’s done Handel and Mozart and Offenbach, and talks of “getting used to the form, how it moves, what the repetition is – so different to what the repetition is in Handel,” and finding “the point of view from which we are looking at the story,” given that we are familiar with the 400 years of history between England and Scotland since the time of the two queens.

"We weren't going to do a production that was about Brexit or Scottish independence," he says. "We weren't going to do a production where they were Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May. For me that wasn't interesting." And he references the more recent news of "a large imperial neighbour imposing on its smaller neighbour in geopolitics coloured by emotion" as well as "Harry and Meghan doing royal interviews, or how various royal families in different countries use the media". With designer Katie Davenport, he's been "kind of boiling those ideas down so that the images that we're using are clear and are resonant and are spare."

The two singers at all times emphasize the testing nature of the vocal writing, the high stakes issues in the drama, the complexity of the characters, and the vocal challenges of marrying drama and vulnerability. “The joy of wisdom,” says Devin, “is that we realise we know nothing as we get older.

Before I leave I ask each of them for Maria Stuarda in three words. They offer “explosive, dramatic, uplifting” (Sheil), “thrilling, urgent, beautiful” (Creed), “touching, indomitable, powerful” (Erraught), and “intimate, free-spirited, feminine” (Devin).