Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda: A History

1800: Schiller’s play Mary Stuart premiered in Weimar


Friedrich Schiller, Playwright & Poet (1759-1805)

The starting point for Donizetti’s opera is Friedrich Schiller’s play Mary Stuart, which premiered in Germany in 1800. Tudor history, and especially Mary Stuart, was a popular source of inspiration for writers and composers at the time. Between 1773 and 1824, no fewer than four playwrights wrote dramas about Mary Stuart. Over 20,000 books have been written about her life.

Early 1800s: Donizetti saw an Italian translation of Schiller’s Maria Stuart play in Milan, shortly after its premiere in Weimar


Gaetano Donizetti, Composer (1797-1848)

Donizetti was one of the leading Italian opera composers of the early 19th century. He was extremely prolific, composing more than 70 operas in his lifetime. He came from a very humble background and only pursued musical study thanks to a generous scholarship.

Donizetti’s operas explore a huge range of topics, ranging from tragic, to comic, to historical. Donizetti had a desire for passionate and powerful subjects, as opposed to the amorous and mythological subjects favoured by the Baroque and Classical periods. These subjects did not always sit well with Italian censors, as we’ll see below. Donizetti wrote to a friend: “I am here for the music and not to guarantee the poetic text to the authorities”. He wanted audiences to be moved by his operas.

Like many other artists of his era, Donizetti seemed particularly interested in Tudor history: the leading ladies of his operas Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Il castello di Kenilworth are often referred to as the ‘Three Donizetti Queens’ (Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I).

July 1834: Libretto for Maria Stuarda completed

What is a libretto?

A libretto is the text of an opera. It is usually written by someone other than the composer, and usually (though not always) before the music. As well as making the text more appropriate for musical setting, Bardari’s libretto simplified Schiller’s play, eliminating some of the characters and longer scenes. He did, however, add in the love story between Mary and the Earl of Leicester – an element not included in Schiller’s play, or indeed based on true events (aside from the fact that Elizabeth suggested Leicester as a potential husband for Mary).  At the time, it was unusual for the composer to approach a librettist with a desired subject; usually, this happened the other way around.

Guiseppe Bardari, Librettist (1817-1861)

Having settled on Mary Stuart as the subject for his opera, Donizetti initially approached the librettist Felice Romani, who he had worked with previously on Anna Bolena. Romani was considered the finest Italian librettist of his age, and Donizetti offered him twice the usual fee. However, he heard nothing back, and so the libretto was written by 17-year-old Guiseppe Bardari, a promising literary figure who frequented the salons of Naples during his student days. Despite his precocious talents, Maria Stuarda was the only libretto Bardari ever wrote; he decided to pursue a legal career instead.

September 1834: Censors ordered Bardari to make substantial changes to his text. Maria Stuarda is banned from performance in Naples by the King


The reasons for this are unclear. One story is that Queen Maria Cristina attended a dress rehearsal and fainted when Mary was taken to be beheaded. According to historian William Ashbrook, it is more likely that a member of the court attended a rehearsal on her behalf, and gave an unfavourable account of the experience. Violent and bloody subjects were not favoured by censors at the time, and Queen Maria Cristina was in fact a descendant of Mary Stuart herself. In Bardari’s libretto, the dramatic confrontation scene culminates in Mary calling Elizabeth a “bastard brat”. This might have had something to do with the ban, too.

It seems that the tension between Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth became a reality for Ronzi De Begnis and Anna Del Serre, who were the first singers to be rehearsed into the roles. In a particularly heated rehearsal, Anna Del Serre (Mary) allegedly called Ronzi De Begnis a “bastard brat” with such passion that De Begnis took the insult personally and physically attacked her colleague.

October 1834: Donizetti adapts the music of Maria Stuarda to a different, less ‘offensive’ subject – Dante’s Paradiso

It was unsuccessful, receiving only six performances in Naples.


1835: Maria Stuarda is performed in full in Milan.

Donizetti described the evening as "painful, from start to finish".

1865: Maria Stuarda is performed in Naples.

Again, it was not critically acclaimed.

Maria Stuarda is ignored for the next century.

It was only during the ‘Donizetti renaissance’ of the late 20th Century that the work was ‘rediscovered’, and it was next performed in full in Bergamo in 1989.