The Story: Fact vs. Fiction

Here at OperaUpClose, we don’t think you should need to read the story of an opera beforehand in order to enjoy watching it.

A great production should be the perfect combination of beautiful music and compelling drama, which you can follow and appreciate without any prior knowledge. Chances are, you will know what happened to Mary Stuart, in the end — but in Donizetti’s opera, lots of other things happen along the way.

Having said all that, it is interesting to compare the events in Donizetti’s Mary Queen of Scots to what we know about the real lives of Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth. The opera takes up the story when Mary has been imprisoned in England for nearly twenty years. In the action that follows, Donizetti and Bardari take a few liberties in their telling of the Queens’ story. Here are a couple of examples:

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Firstly, the two Queens never actually met in person. They only communicated via letter. Mary pushed for a meeting with Elizabeth her entire life, especially when she came to England, and was seeking help from her cousin. But Elizabeth always declined.

When Mary wrote to Elizabeth in May 1568 – saying “I entreat you to send to fetch me as soon as you possibly can, for I am in a pitiable condition, not only for a queen, but for a gentlewoman” – Elizabeth’s response was to send a bundle of old clothing.

So why do they meet in Schiller’s play, Donizetti’s opera and (more recently), the blockbuster Mary Queen of Scots film? We have a great sense of the two women’s feelings towards each other through their letters, and it is probably more entertaining (certainly more dramatic) to imagine these feelings played out in a face-to-face meeting. As we know, Donizetti had a penchant for dramatic and passionate subjects; it is hard to imagine this passion through the medium of paper and ink.

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Secondly, the love triangle between Elizabeth, Leicester and Mary has little basis in fact. Elizabeth and Leicester’s relationship is well-documented and a constant source of fascination for historians, but there is little evidence of the passionate feelings between Mary and Leicester which we witness in the opera – even though Elizabeth had suggested that Leicester marry Mary in 1563, in order to strengthen the amity between England and Scotland against foreign powers.

Love triangles (especially involving a heroic, passionate tenor) are common in opera, and this additional layer to Maria Stuarda turns it from a historical subject into a truly operatic one.