The Queen of Kings

Classic Arts Features   The Queen of Kings
A look at the history that is - and isn't - depicted in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda (Mary, Queen of Scots), opening at the Dallas Opera.

The story of Mary, Queen of Scots, virtually cries out for theatrical treatment. It's a bloody tale of power politics, murder, narrow escapes, religious fervor, national and international intrigue, spying, and, of course, love.

The most famous operatic treatment is the one currently being produced by The Dallas Opera, Gaetano Donizetti's Mary, Queen of Scots.

There have been other operas, as well as plays by such writers as Friedrich Schiller and Maxwell Anderson, a host of novels and other books, and numerous films, beginning with Thomas Edison's The Execution of Mary Stuart in 1895 (one of the first movies ever made) and including later versions with Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave as the ill-fated queen. Shooting for yet another film, starring Scarlett Johansson, is scheduled to begin next summer.

Even Shakespeare, who was in his 20s when Mary was executed, may have penned some lines about her. Many believe that a passage in A Midsummer Night's Dream is a coded reference to Mary and her career — the subject was still too hot at that time for a full-scale dramatic treatment.

Donizetti's opera, with libretto by Giuseppe Bardari, is based on Schiller's play. The opera is a work of great force both musically and dramatically, but it should not be taken as history. The most obvious departure from fact is the powerful confrontation in Act II between Mary and Queen Elizabeth I, which offers a wonderful opportunity for bravura singing and acting by two forceful stage personalities. Actually, the two queens never saw each other, although Mary tried throughout her adult life to arrange a meeting. The opera depicts her as reluctant to encounter Elizabeth; in reality, there's nothing except freedom that she would have liked more.

If they had met, it's unlikely the encounter would have resembled the operatic scene, which becomes a hissing battle of words. Their letters to each other tended to be temperate and even affectionate (on Mary's part, at least). And Mary was famous for her charm. The atmosphere might have been cool, but there would have been no hurling of insults.

Another departure from the historical record is the exaggeration of the role of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. In the opera he is in love with Mary, Elizabeth is in love with him, and Elizabeth's jealousy of Mary brings about the latter's downfall. It is true that for many years Leicester was Elizabeth's favorite and that he hoped to marry her. But she turned him down and later even proposed that he marry the widowed Queen Mary to cement English and Scottish relations. Mary rejected the idea. There were a few meetings between Leicester and Mary, but he had faded to a subsidiary role by the time of the opera's action.

There are other, less obvious distortions, including the virtual elimination of the religious aspect of their conflict, which loomed large in Mary's and Elizabeth's day.

But some things ring true — for instance, the sympathetic portrayal of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and the negative portrayal of the villainous Sir William Cecil. Shrewsbury was Mary's chief jailer during her long years of captivity in England. But he was fond of her and gave her privileges that did not sit well with the court in London. He tried to avoid serving on the commission that found her guilty of treason, and he wept at her execution. Cecil, on the other hand, was a religious fanatic and sinister practitioner of Realpolitik who was eager to see Mary eliminated.

Above all, Donizetti and his librettist succeed in projecting the almost irresistible force of a fateful encounter between two powerful, historic personalities. So striking was the message of the opera that 19th-century Italian censors banned it. It wouldn't do, in revolutionary times, to present the severity of one monarch and the killing of another. Donizetti salvaged large sections of the score and used them in another opera, Buondelmonte. But it wasn't until the late 1950s that the opera was revived in its original, dramatic form.

If Mary, Queen of Scots is dubious in some of its historical details, what was the real story? Even today, there are partisans on both sides and some points remain unclear and controversial. But the story can be told in broad outline.

Mary was born in 1542 in turbulent times. Her father was King James V of Scotland; her mother was Mary of Guise, who was French. The infant Mary shared a common ancestor with her future antagonist, the young Princess Elizabeth, in King Henry VII of England. The two women were cousins.

Six days after Mary's birth, her father died, and she became the queen of Scotland. She also became a political asset. In those days, royal children were commodities to be bartered in political and dynastic maneuvering. Various future matches were proposed for her. In retrospect, one of them was particularly intriguing. King Henry VIII of England proposed the espousal of the infant Queen Mary to his heir, the future King Edward VI. If that marriage had occurred, Mary would eventually have become the queen of England and the sister-in-law of Elizabeth and her story would have been a very different one.

But it was not to be. Instead, the child was espoused to Francis, the dauphin of France. At the age of five Mary was sent across the Channel for education and training in queenly duties. Her years there left her thoroughly "Frenchified"; French was the language she was the most comfortable with for the rest of her life.

At the age of 15, she was married to the dauphin who was a year younger and had not reached puberty. But it was a happy marriage between two people who had been childhood friends and were devoted to each other to the end.

With the death of King Henry II of France in 1559, the dauphin became King Francis II and Mary became queen of France (as well as Scotland). But the reign was short. Francis died of natural causes a little over a year later and Mary, who had not yet reached her 18th birthday, became the queen dowager.

Up to that time, Mary's life seems to have been an unusually happy one. She had a naturally sunny disposition and had been shielded from the harsher realities of royal life. That quickly changed, especially when she decided to return to Scotland in 1561 after royal attitudes toward her in France had cooled.

Mary faced two huge problems: England had long coveted the throne of Scotland, with ferocious opposition from many Scots, and Protestantism was on the ascendancy in both England and Scotland during a time of severe religious strife (the Spanish Inquisition of Protestants and Jews was in full force during Mary's lifetime). Emotions were further intensified because the Vatican argued that Elizabeth was not the legitimate ruler of England. In the pope's view, King Henry VIII was still legally married to Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, when Anne Boleyn gave birth to Elizabeth, who was therefore illegitimate. According to this theory, Mary, a devout Catholic, was the legitimate queen of England — an idea that was hardly likely to endear her to Elizabeth.

During the following years, Mary carefully walked a narrow path, trying to assure her Protestant subjects that she had no intention of imposing Catholicism on them and to convince Elizabeth that she had no intention of trying to depose her. She was never entirely successful in either case. These were tumultuous times, with Mary having to deal constantly with thuggish Scottish nobles whose infighting and shifting allegiances made normal government impossible in Scotland.

There were also personal crises. Once one of her Catholic aides was dragged away from her presence and murdered in the next room while the horrified Mary listened to his pleas for mercy. She fell desperately in love with the young Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and married him despite strong advice to the contrary. The union produced a son, James, but quickly soured. Darnley was eventually murdered by Scottish nobles. Mary strongly denied accusations that she was involved, but suspicion lingered for the rest of her life. Then Mary apparently was raped by a noble, the Earl of Bothwell, and consented to marry him to avoid public humiliation. Bothwell soon had to flee Scotland; he ended his life insane in a Danish prison.

Mary's final Scottish ordeal in 1567 and 1568 involved imprisonment, a daring escape, the rallying of opposition to a rebellion, and a lost battle. Loyalists urged her to flee to France, where she would have been well received, but she made the fatal decision to go south and seek help from Queen Elizabeth. Instead she was imprisoned, and remained so for the next 18 years. (Donizetti's opera begins late in Mary's captivity.)

There were various plots by supporters to rescue her, but all came to naught. Then, in 1586, there was a plan that involved not only rescuing Mary but assassinating Elizabeth. Mary probably had no role in orchestrating this plot, but she knew about it and was convicted of treason. She was beheaded in February of the following year.

Back in 1542, when the dying King James V of Scotland was told that his queen had given birth to a daughter instead of a son, he expressed his disappointment, saying that his line was finished.

Well, not quite. Sixteen years after Mary's execution, Elizabeth died. Succeeding her as ruler of England was King James VI of Scotland, Mary's son. As James I of England, the new ruler was to leave as his most enduring legacy the King James version of the Bible.

He also left successors. In fact, since his accession to the English throne in 1603, every single monarch of England, including the present-day Queen Elizabeth II, has been a direct descendant of James and his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.

In that respect, at least, Mary was the ultimate victor over Elizabeth I.

Olin Chism is a special contributor to the Dallas Morning News.

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