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Donizetti created this dazzling display of bel canto in Naples for the Teatro San Carlo in 1834. The confrontation between the two queens Elisabetta and Maria Stuarda and the emotionally charged final scenes that show Maria Stuarda shortly before her execution have gained widespread fame. Despite this, the opera was beset with difficulties: there were problems with the censors, the two leading ladies came to blows during a rehearsal and Queen Maria Christina is said to have attended the dress rehearsal and to have fainted during Maria’s confession scene. As a result, the opera had to be completely rewritten at short notice and appeared with the title of Buondelmonte. It was obvious that the libretto and the music did not match, and the opera flopped. An attempt by the famous singer Maria Malibran to revive the work in Milan failed when the two leading ladies were struck down by a severe virus. Consequently, the opera was forgotten, and was not rediscovered until 1958. Because it contains two outstanding parts for coloratura sopranos it has since become a fixture of the operatic repertoire.

Elisabetta, queen of England, is holding Maria Stuarda, the former queen of Scotland, prisoner. From her prison, the latter is allegedly an accessory to a series of plots to kill Elisabetta. The Queen’s advisers urge her to finally execute her rival for the throne. Elisabetta, however, is more interested in affairs of the heart. She is negotiating a marriage to the king of France, although she really loves Lord Leicester, who for his part is in love with Maria Stuarda and intends to save her. But his attempt to bring the beautiful Scot and her enemy closer together ends in disaster: he arranges a meeting between the two of them with a view to a reconciliation, but no sooner are the queens face to face than Leicester’s feelings for Maria become apparent. Filled with jealousy, Elisabetta provokes Maria and the two trade a torrent of insults. When, following this altercation, Leicester again asks for mercy for Maria, Elisabetta, who had previously been hesitant, furiously signs the death sentence and orders Leicester to witness the execution. Maria accepts her sentence. When her loyal friend Giorgio Talbot gives her final consolation with the rites of her Catholic religion, she finds inner peace. She courageously walks towards her executioner.