Mary, Queen of Scots is the perfect subject for a great opera – she makes contemporary celebrities look as dull as dishwater. During her fairly short life, the 16th-century Scottish queen waged war on her own country, was accused of adultery and even of blowing her husband up, before having her head cut off under orders from her cousin, Elizabeth I of England.
This tumultuous, tragic life has fascinated writers and the public right up to the present day and now, Donizetti’s great 1835 take on the story arrives at the Royal Opera House, Muscat, with a staging of Maria Stuarda from tomorrow until Saturday. Packed with joyous, elaborate music that demands athletic singing from its cast, this production from Britain’s much-admired Welsh National Opera demonstrates how this clash of the divas still has a powerful grip on the imagination. To really enjoy the opera, it helps to unpack Mary’s sensational backstory and ask why a woman, dead for more than 425 years, has remained so much in the public imagination.
Mary seemed to do everything too early. Married at just 5 years old to the future king of France, she was widowed at 18 and sent packing back to Scotland. Queen of her home country at 19, she remarried a certain Lord Darnley – a Catholic her Protestant subjects hated, who promptly rebelled against her and had her male secretary murdered in front of her. As if this wasn’t melodramatic enough, Mary’s supporters fought back by blowing up the house in which her husband was staying. Mary promptly remarried yet again – to the prime suspect for her husband’s murder.
Forced to flee to England, Mary probably felt herself safe, but was actually walking into her life’s final, sad drama. Her English cousin, Elizabeth I, began an inquiry into Darnley’s murder, where Mary was incriminated by (probably forged) letters. Not found guilty, Mary was nonetheless imprisoned by Elizabeth. Her health failing, she was later accused of trying to overthrow Elizabeth – who was considered illegitimate by Catholics – and executed by beheading. At the end of her brief, sensational life, Mary was just 44.
Mary was known for her beauty and intelligence, but it was really as a famous Catholic, fighting Protestants, that she became a famous figure in European art.
Mary was considered a schemer by Protestants, but the German romantic playwright Friedrich Schiller nonetheless painted her as a martyr in his still popular 1800 masterpiece Maria Stuart. Several other plays and operas were also written about her life, most of them poor, pulpy equivalents of modern-day soap operas that present Mary as a young beauty and Elizabeth as a vicious old shrew. Among these, Donizetti’s charged, passionate opera is easily the best-loved and most interesting, even though it plays fast and loose with historical fact.
As an opera scenario, the clash between Mary and Elizabeth is pure gold, a battle of two divas to the death. The fight between these two women is acted out by musical showmanship that involves maximum use of coloratura to express their violent rivalry through singing alone. This peaks during Mary’s insult aria Figlia impura di Bolena (impure daughter of Boleyn) when she goes as far as calling her cousin Elizabeth a “bastarda” – a line so shocking that it saw the opera banned in some places for a while.
So intense is this musical showdown that it has occasionally become physical. At the opera’s Naples premiere, the singers playing Mary and Elizabeth ended up punching each other. It’s not all histrionics, however, with Mary’s poignant goodbye prayer showing how Donizetti could be a master at creating transcendent musical peace as well as thunderstorms.
•Tickets for Maria Stuarda, which runs from Thursday until Saturday at the Royal Opera House, Muscat, are available from Dh95 to Dh744 through www.rohmuscat.org.om