(Maria Stuarda—Donizetti) by Dame Janet Baker
‘Why on earth do you want to play Mary Stuart, she's such a silly woman.’ This reaction from a friend of mine has justification, regarded from the viewpoint of English history. From Donizetti's, which was shared by almost all Europe and certainly by Mary herself, the Catholic position was quite clear: Elizabeth was a usurper and Mary the rightful sovereign of England. Such an attitude puts a different light on all Mary's behaviour, misguided and ill‐advised as she may have been, and was the one I tried to cultivate in my study of the opera. I deliberately refrained from reading any material about her and concentrated only on the woman who emerged from the composer's score.
She is an absolute gift for the singer: each scene paints a different side of her character, musically and dramatically. Her first appearance, as a vulnerable young woman let out into the air from her prison, leads on to a passionate expression of womanhood in her scene with Leicester and then the final extraordinary confrontation with Elizabeth, which demands the utmost in physical and emotional energy.
Maria Stuarda is written in such a way that all the singing takes place in consecutive scenes and asks a great deal of the performer, since there is no chance to rest the voice between appearances. The only chances for recovery are the intervals between acts, of course, and one gap for Elizabeth's part in Act II, but it is preferable for a singer to have shorter scenes which allow her to leave the stage more often. Donizetti doesn't do this here and the tremendous vocal concentration necessary to sustain the role entails careful pacing if one is to survive with enough in reserve for the final scenes.
Pacing a role is not back‐pedalling in any way—the singing goes on just the same but the energy‐drain is carefully controlled so that enough emotional resources are available at all times. It takes great experience to judge exactly what is needed so that one phrase is not favoured at the expense of another. But it is vital for the individual to learn what those needs are and how much personal energy is there to be drawn upon.
In Act 1, Mary goes from playful young woman to imperious queen. In Act 2 she is older, lacking in vitality and hope. She has to summon up more and more charisma as the opera moves to its close and the great confession scene strips her of all pretence, all illusion. Cleansed of her guilt and of the past, she is prepared for the final ‘good‐bye’ to her faithful courtiers. Her make‐up, wig, and costume change and she is transformed into the younger, attractive Mary, ready to face death with a courage which she will inspire in the chorus who surround her in the final scenes. For me, this was always a very important point in the opera. When one is on stage with many people, all acting their parts with integrity, an enormous feeling of strength and good‐will flows between the performers. They helped me to give everything I had for the rest of the opera, especially when I was aware that my own energy levels were low. The atmosphere stemming from the chorus replenished me and gave me tremendous support.