First of all: they never met

Historians are pretty sure that England’s Protestant Queen Elizabeth I never laid eyes on her Catholic cousin and rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Supported by the Pope and by influential Catholics everywhere, Mary was enough of a danger to Elizabeth’s throne upon her arrival in England that Elizabeth kept Mary at a distance, imprisoned in four successive castles, before finally ordering Mary’s execution.

But the facts have seldom gotten in the way of a good drama. Poets, playwrights, filmmakers, and opera composers can’t resist creating an emotional, juicy confrontation scene between the two women – each so romanticized and so royal.

Neither woman occupies what you’d call the moral high ground. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, whom he was so desperate to marry that he left the Catholic Church and established the Church of England (a measure that allowed him to divorce his previous wife and marry Anne). Thus Catholics believed Elizabeth had no right to the throne of England, and the Pope urged the faithful to depose her.

Mary, implicated in the death of her first husband, Lord Darnley (and soon thereafter married to Darnley’s probable murderer, the Earl of Bothwell), was the focus of anti-Elizabeth rebellions aimed at dethroning Elizabeth and crowning Mary as Queen. (Technically, Mary and Elizabeth were not first cousins, but first cousins once removed: Mary was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, thus Henry’s grandniece.)

Seattle Opera will plunge into the Mary-vs.-Elizabeth issue with the city’s first-ever production of Donizetti’s opera “Mary Stuart” (“Maria Stuarda”). Set in 1587, the libretto opens with Elizabeth mulling over her future and the problem posed by Mary, whom she has imprisoned in Fotheringhay Castle. Elizabeth’s favorite, Leicester, urges her to respond to Mary’s request for a meeting.
In Act II, the meeting occurs – with Mary initially a humble supplicant, but soon losing her temper when Elizabeth accuses her of participation in Darnley’s murder. Mary’s ill-advised response, insulting Elizabeth as a “vil bastarda,” seals her fate, particularly after Elizabeth’s advisor, Lord Cecil, shows her evidence of Mary’s plot against her. The final act of the opera has Mary calmly accepting her fate, professing her faith, and ascending the scaffold.

The path of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” to the opera stage was anything but smooth: the premiere was cancelled after the principal singers got into a fight, and opera was recast and retitled, and then finally premiered in its current version in 1835. The performance wasn’t a great one: the two principal singers were both ill, and the composer called the resulting show “painful, from start to finish.”

This opera might have disappeared from contemporary view entirely without the rise of some great sopranos, hungry for star vehicles to show off their spectacular voices, in the 1970s. Dame Joan Sutherland sang in the first US staged performance of “Maria Stuarda” at San Francisco Opera in 1971. Another great diva, Beverly Sills, put this opera together with two other Donizetti operas about English Tudor queens (“Roberto Devereux” and “Anna Bolena”) in 1972 at the New York City Opera.

This season, the soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is replicating Sills’ “Three Queens” feat at the New York Metropolitan Opera, and earning rave reviews – so “Mary Stuart” is a hot topic among operaphiles.

Here in Seattle, we will hear Italian-born Serena Farnocchia and Lebanese-born Joyce El-Khoury in the title role, with two American-born sopranos — Mary Elizabeth Williams and Keri Alkema – as Mary’s rival, Elizabeth. As Leicester, the third person in this operatic love triangle, Seattle will hear John Tessier (last heard here in “The Pearl Fishers”) and Andrew Owens (in his company debut).
On March 5, Classical KING FM listeners will get to hear the first cast (Farnocchia, Williams, and Tessier) of this production in a live broadcast hosted by Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang. a genial and always articulate host. Even if you’re attending one of the other performances, be sure to tune in: no two shows are ever the same!

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