Each of Donizetti’s three great "Tudor queen" operas—Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux—ends with the heroine considering her legacy and her eternal soul. Poor Anne Boleyn rages with the effort of forgiving her enemies in an extended mad scene, while Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux agonizes over the bloodshed she has caused. Only Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, faces her demise with peace of mind. Absolved of her sins, she even delivers an eloquent wish for the well-being of the rival who condemned her to death. Her vocal line soaring above the chorus of mourners in the finale is an unforgettable musical manifestation of her spiritual triumph. It’s the kind of effect that inspires David McVicar, director of the Met premiere production of Maria Stuarda, which opened on New Year’s Eve, to describe the opera as "a perfect example of bel canto style, telling a vivid dramatic story through music that glories in the possibilities of the human voice."

The voices at the center of the Met’s production belong to mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, soprano Elza van den Heever, and tenor Matthew Polenzani. DiDonato, who won overwhelming praise for her portrayal of Maria Stuarda in Houston last spring, relishes the vocal possibilities of the title role, which, she says, "requires every element of great bel canto singing: every dynamic range, elegant coloratura, rich legato, immensely difficult phrasing, and a deep emotional palette that asks for profound expression." She agrees with McVicar that these elements are placed at the service of an extraordinary drama and says that, "the task of creating this very real, noble, and passionately proud character through the voice alone is one of the greatest experiences of my career to date."

Like the play by Friedrich Schiller on which it is based, Maria Stuarda presents a fictionalized version of events leading to the execution of Mary, who is a prisoner in England under Queen Elizabeth, played by van den Heever in her company debut. The opera focuses on the emotional dynamics between the two women, who are blood relatives and political rivals, raising the stakes with a love triangle involving Robert, Earl of Leicester—sung by Polenzani, who recently scored a major success as Nemorino in the season-opening new production of L’Elisir d’Amore. (He returns to the role this month.) The plot is simpler than those of Anna Bolena or Roberto Devereux, allowing for more of what McVicar calls "storytelling through pure music. So much is being expressed through the vocal line of the protagonists."

In fact, some of the scenes may have been too expressive for Donizetti’s time, as evidenced by a notorious tussle that occurred during initial rehearsals in 1834. In the opera’s famous (and historically inaccurate) confrontation between the two queens, which ends with Mary hurling judgment at Elizabeth, calling her an "obscene whore" and a "vile bastard," the soprano singing Mary delivered her lines with such zeal that the Elizabeth pounced on her, and an all-out brawl ensued between the two divas. DiDonato, who has also sung the role of Elizabeth to acclaim, marvels
at the richness of this climactic scene, beyond its superficial catfight appeal. As she explains, "Maria’s life is on the line, and Elizabeth’s reign is on the line. The personal and professional cost for both of these women is the greatest they’ve ever faced. They are the only two souls in the world who understand the pressure the other functions under in this male dominated world. Despite having that in common, they make drastic choices in how they confront each other, with Maria choosing her pride over her life, in the end."

Whether due to the explosive power
of this scene or to mysterious political reasons, Maria Stuarda was banned even before its scheduled premiere, its music hastily recycled and set to an entirely unrelated libretto. But Donizetti did not give up on his creation, and the next year, after censors toned down some incendiary language, the celebrated prima donna Maria Malibran took on the title role. Malibran, however, knew good music drama when she saw it and chose to ignore the censors’ changes, resulting in the opera’s being banned for a second time. Maria Stuarda survived this rough start—and more than a hundred years of neglect—returning to international stages with the bel canto revival of the late 20th century. Since then, both sopranos and mezzo-sopranos have been drawn to the complex challenges and rewards of the opera’s two queenly roles, and audiences have been mesmerized by the results. DiDonato reflects, "I think the possibility to luxuriate in the pure beauty of the vocal line while serving the profound emotional journey of a character such as Maria is very attractive to a modern audience hungry for beauty and truth."

In a journey that culminates in her willingness to give up her life in the name of honor, the heroine exemplifies an ideal that was glorified in many of Schiller’s dramas, a number of which inspired opera composers, including Rossini with Guillaume Tell and Verdi with Don Carlo. McVicar and his creative team—set and costume designer John Macfarlane, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and choreographer Leah Hausman—are mindful of the opera’s roots: "Remembering it is based on the ultra-romantic, dramatic treatment of Schiller, we’ve gone for a visual style that is freer, more romantic," McVicar says, "which somehow, rather than reflecting history, reflects the nature of this retelling of the story and the sweeping nature of Donizetti’s music."

At the Met, this vibrant, luminous score is in the hands of Maurizio Benini, who has conducted many bel canto masterworks for the company, including last fall’s L’Elisir d’Amore. Given that Donizetti had already composed more than 40 operas prior to Maria Stuarda, which came four years after the success of Anna Bolena, it’s not surprising that the composer had a sure hand with the formally structured arias and ensembles that were conventional in his day. What is constantly surprising is the inventiveness with which he maximized
their impact and occasionally strayed from the formalities—and therefore, as McVicar puts it, "how particular and pertinent each score is to the story that he’s telling." In fact, since the librettist for Maria Stuarda was young and inexperienced, Donizetti might have been more involved than usual in the crafting of the text as well, resulting in a striking melding. Having already directed the Met’s new Anna Bolena and with Roberto Devereux still to come, McVicar has become a passionate fan. "It’s the refinement and the intelligence of Donizetti’s writing that’s really taken my breath away," he marvels. "Maria Stuarda crackles with drama. It crackles with romance. It’s a very, very powerful midpoint in the trilogy." —Ellen Keel

This article was first published in September 2012 in the Met's Season Book and online in December 2012.