Tragedia lirica in two acts by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
Libretto by Giuseppe Bardari
after the eponymous tragedy by Friedrich Schiller
In Italian with German and English surtitles. Duration 2 H. 40 Min. incl. intermission after 1st part after approx. 1 H. 05 Min.
Mary Stuart has been held prisoner by Queen Elizabeth I of England for years. Mary was deposed as Queen of Scots after her second husband Henry Darnley died under mysterious circumstances and she married his suspected murderer Lord Bothwell. Protestant Elizabeth has granted Catholic Mary exile on English soil, but keeps her well guarded: the two queens are closely related, and Elizabeth fears Mary’s claim to the English throne.
Elizabeth has received a marriage proposal from the King of France. Fearing that such a union would deprive her of her own royal independence, she hesitates to accept.
George Talbot, who has been charged with Mary’s supervision, petitions Elizabeth for her release, while Lord Cecil, a member of Elizabeth’s cabinet, urges her to have Mary executed.
The Earl of Leicester appears. Elizabeth is extremely fond of him, but suspects that he is in love not with her but with Mary. She asks Leicester to take her ring to the French ambassador as a sign that she will accept the French king’s marriage proposal. Leicester’s indifferent response confirms her suspicions – and angers her, too.
Talbot gives Leicester a letter from Mary. This reminder of Mary reignites Leicester’s passion and strengthens him in his desire to have her set free. Elizabeth notices Leicester’s inner restlessness and confronts him.
Leicester asks her to show mercy to Mary. He persuades her to meet Mary and convince herself of Mary’s innocence. Elizabeth is beset with jealousy, but grants Leicester his request: Mary and her confidante Anna Kennedy will be allowed a moment outside the prison walls.
Walking outside her prison, Mary recalls her happy childhood in France. A royal hunting party approaches. Leicester appears, to announce Elizabeth’s arrival. He urges Mary to show appropriate humility.
The two queens meet. Mary kneels before Elizabeth and asks for her mercy. Elizabeth is raging with jealousy inside. When Leicester again pleads Mary’s case, Elizabeth curses her as a murderer and a criminal. Mary retorts by calling Elizabeth a bastard and rejecting her right to the English throne. Elizabeth warns Mary that she will suffer a terrible fate, and has her taken away.
Cecil urges Elizabeth to condemn Mary to death. Elizabeth is still wavering, fearing that the murder of a queen could have huge repercussions. But when Leicester again pleads for mercy on Mary’s behalf, she promptly signs the death warrant. She also insists that Leicester must attend the execution.
Cecil brings Mary the news that she has been sentenced to death. Mary confesses to Talbot, who reveals himself to be a Catholic priest, that she was indeed involved in her second husband’s murder. But she denies having planned a conspiracy against Elizabeth. Talbot absolves Mary of her sins, and Mary draws courage from her faith.
Surrounded by her loyal servants, Mary prays to God as the execution approaches. She requests that Anna be allowed to accompany her. She forgives Elizabeth and asks Cecil to tell her this. After saying farewell to a distraught Leicester, she walks to the scaffold, dignified to the end.