Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as Mary Stuart, has fascinated historians and writers throughout the centuries. Alexandre Dumas wrote a biography of her, and more recently, Antonia Fraser crafted a popular book around the story of the doomed queen. In the early 19th century, German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote a play that became “Maria Stuarda,” an opera by Gaetano Donizetti.
The opera, when it premiered in 1835, ran into trouble with the censors, who were sensitive about the execution at its conclusion. But now, the beautiful bel canto drama is taking hold. “Maria Stuarda” is being performed by the Metropolitan Opera next spring. Closer to home, the opera will be staged next Friday and Nov. 17 in St. Joseph University Church by Opera Sacra, the colorful company founded in 1975 by the church’s pastor, Father Jacob Ledwon.
“Maria Stuarda” has a religious theme in that Mary’s Catholicism placed her at odds with England’s Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. It could be said that Mary died a martyr. (She believed that, and asked to wear a red dress to her execution as a sign of her martyrdom.) At one time, she was considered for canonization.
Taut and tense, the opera imagines a face-to-face confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary. Such a confrontation never happened, historians say, but it makes for a gripping scenario. In Schiller’s play, and Donizetti’s opera, Elizabeth is jealous of the love her courtier Leicester has for Mary. Egged on by her malevolent adviser Cecil, she eventually orders Mary’s execution.
Sumptuous Elizabethan garb is being imported from Malabar, the venerable Toronto costume company. The opera will be performed in Italian, with the audience aided by an easy-to-follow synopsis.
The production features Valerian Ruminski, who heads Nickel City Opera, as well as tenor Robert Zimmerman and coloratura soprano Amy Grable, a husband-and-wife team who have international careers and recently moved to Buffalo. Zimmerman and Grable sing Leicester and Mary. Elizabeth is another coloratura, Colleen Marcello. The villainous Cecil is sung by Benoit Pietre, a Canadian baritone based in Berlin.
Ledwon has wanted to stage “Maria Stuarda” for a long time. Eager to stage it correctly, he consulted with University at Buffalo history professor Claire Schen, an Elizabethan history expert.
“They used white lead for makeup. That’s why they got dementia and died young, although Elizabeth didn’t,” he says. “And their hairline, they plucked their hair so their hairline was high. That was a sign of wisdom.”
Ledwon points out that Elizabeth and Mary were powerful figures, as was a third queen in that era, Catherine de Medici. “These three women ruled the world,” he marvels. “They were constantly in difficult situations. At one point, the pope sent an emissary to Mary Stuart, asking her to restore Catholicism to England. She responded, ‘It’s not the right time yet.’ Imagine sending that answer to the pope!”
The opera has many dramatic high points. One famous interlude comes when Elizabeth taunts Mary until she finally snaps. Mary flings an insult at Elizabeth that, Ledwon points out, needs no translation. “Bastarda!” she bursts out.
“It’s very intense. Very high energy,” Ledwon says.
And the music, he adds, is glorious. “It’s breathtaking and beautiful.”
What: “Maria Stuarda,” opera by Gaetano Donizetti
When: 8 p.m. next Friday and Nov. 17
Where: St. Joseph University Church, 3269 Main St.
Tickets: Suggested donation $20