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Queen of dissent: Mary Stuart
and the opera in her honour by Carlo Coccia

 by Alexander Weatherson


The mystery of the sudden banning of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda in Naples in 1834 should not be quite as mysterious as it has always been made out to be. Politics were the cause.  Though the "Carbonari" was the name given to anti-governmental rebels in pre-Risorgimento Italy few realise that this romantic term was derived from the legends surrounding Mary Queen of Scots, when a "chain of seditious charcoal-burners" was supposed to have been organised to carry out a secret struggle against the throne of Queen Elizabeth I.  Sedition of this kind made the decapitated monarch unpopular in Bourbon Naples of course, and not only in Naples, the claim that the banning of the opera was just because the King and Queen of Naples were extremely remote descendants of Mary Stuart (like almost every other Catholic monarch in Europe) was very wide of the mark.

The article below was presented in 2001 at the request of the Teatro Donizetti of Bergamo to mark the revival of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda of that year.


Political Mayhem - Carlini's Maria Stuarda of 1818

Breaking the ice - Coccia's Mary Stuart of 1827

Grasping the nettle - Donizetti's Maria Stuarda of 1834/5



That the sprightly Neapolitan, Carlo Coccia, came to see Mary Stuart through English eyes goes without saying. A highly professional operatic refugee from the Rossinian torrent in his beloved native city of Naples, he had first paused in Lisbon (writing four operas and a National Anthem) before coming on to London in 1823;  here as musical director of the largest and most glamorous opera house in the city, the King's Theatre in the Haymarket (Covent Garden at that time was merely a teatro di prosa),  he became a sort-of figurehead endearing himself as no visiting Italian had ever done before, not even the brilliant succession of Italian composers in the eighteenth century. Urbane, imperturbable and greeting the great pesarese himself with admirable sangfroid when he too arrived in London (later conducting  Zelmira between clenched-teeth) as he alighted from his coach with Isabella Colbran on one arm and a large green parrot on the other, all three white-faced after a frightful channel crossing.  Soon this pupil of Paisiello was professor of singing at the brand-new Royal Academy of Music in London with a stream of eminent pupils.  Indeed, it was the friendly, gregarious Coccia (1782-1873) who restored the high-profile of Italian song in that proud and stubborn island, Italian Opera once again re-emerging from the mists with honour and acclaim.

Scotland too re-emerged from the mists - as far as  the English were concerned - at much the same time. The last of the exiled Stuarts was dead, the pathetically threadbare Henry Stuart, Cardinal “York” (1725-1807), cadet brother of the Young Pretender Charles Edward Stuart had breathed his last  in Rome,  his tomb in St Peters had been paid-for by  King George III, but it was the latter’s more imaginative son King George IV who snatched-up the torch and brought all things Caledonian back to life.  He was painted wearing a kilt;  he ennobled Sir Walter Scott;  the Scottish regalia was bundled out of an old chest in Edinburgh Castle;  shortbread (a kind of Highland biscuit) and porridge (a stodgy oatmeal soup), appeared on genteel tables in the Home Counties and everything  Hebridian was coated with a thick layer of well-meaning sentimentality.  After 1820, and George IV’s Coronation in Westminster Abbey, the Scottish capital moved an inch or two closer to London.

As a kind-of bonus, Mary Stuart came out of the woodwork into which she had been confined ever since her decapitation in 1587.  Poetically-inclined melancholy ladies sighed over her sad fate, a veil was drawn over many of the details of her vexatious career. As a result, and in 1827, Carlo Coccia wrote the one opera of his four-year stay in England,  the opera seria in tre atti  Maria Stuart, regina di Scozia for the great soprano Giuditta Pasta, a work that would represent a  complete change of  style.

No one could complain that Italy had ever abandoned Mary Stuart.  Theatrically speaking she had shown a marked resilience but not really on account of her spiritual perfection.  It was as a political symbol that she had captured the imagination of Italian radicals and their kith and kin.  In the earliest years of the nineteenth century performances of Alfieri’s (1780) and Schiller’s (1801)  far-fetched historical plays staged in her honour rubbed shoulders with a lesser political layer.  Thus a dim “Maria Stuarda restituita dai Carbonari”, for example, a rag-bag of fact and fiction that somehow managed to bridge the gap between fervent Catholicism and Jacobin wishful-thinking [1] ,  found a place among a host of similar popularist plays that included August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue’s “ Edoardo Stuart in Scozia” [2] and the screaming tabloids ”Il principe Eugenio all’assedio di Tamisvar” and “Il trionfo di Napoleone il Grande” aimed directly at a credulous public. They shared the footlights with an even more imaginative “Matilde ossia I Carbonari” in 1809   - which presented the unhappy queen with a fictitious daughter (who too would figure, rather later, in Rossini’s   Elisabetta regina d’Inghilterra but shorn of any disloyal aspects) - as well as a cut-price “I carbonari di Dombar” (ie Dunbar) of similar construction.

All these ephemeral plays had something in common, and were favoured by a dissident public. Needless to say, it was not long before this “Jacobin” Queen of Scotland was given a musical setting: Pietro Casella’s Maria Stuarda  (Firenze 4.1812) was prudent enough, but Pasquale Sogner’s Maria Stuarda ossia I carbonari di Scozia (Venezia 26.12.1814) - omitting to name the poet - sparked-off a political row, which was soon stamped-out by the newly-installed Austrians in Venice who put a  stop to all such provocation,  as they saw it to be.  When the Neapolitan Michele Carafa staged his Elisabetta in Derbyshire ossia Il castello di Fotheringhay  with a libretto by Antonio Peracchi at La Fenice on 26.12.1818  (based upon Schiller), the maestro took care not to upset anyone with either its title or its text (only with some of its spelling), while Saverio Mercadante,  whose Maria Stuarda, regina di Scozia with a text by the Venice-based Gaetano Rossi (Bologna 29.5.1821), though not more than obliquely dependent upon these sources, took care accordingly to stage it as far away from Naples as possible.

There was a  good reason. A far more testing opera had preceded both,  and this was to play havoc with the reputation of the incautious former monarch as viewed by the Bourbon dynasty of Naples.


Political Mayhem - Carlini's Maria Stuarda of 1818

Luigi Carlini’s sadly foolhardy  Maria Stuarda, regina di Scozia  was his very first opera. He wrote the libretto himself it seems, but based it, as its preface makes clear, upon a drama by Camillo Federici,    pseudonym of Giovanni Battista Viassolo, entitled IL TRIONFO DEI CARBONARI (printed in capitals, as here, in the libretto), a play published in Padua in 1802, which itself was the unattributed source for most of the plays listed above. Federici (1749-1802) was a former actor, a piemontese and the author of pulp dramas whose subject-matter encroached upon those of Schiller and Kotzebue, but far more politically charged.  He complained, and with justice, that many of these had been pirated by anonymous opportunists.  Carlini’s ill-fated and ill-timed opera made its first and only appearance at the Real Teatro Carolino of Palermo as the eighth opera of the stagione of 1818 and was dedicated, indeed not very prudently, to none other than SUA ALTEZZA REALE IL DUCA DI CALABRIA (also in capitals). The cast was optimum with Girolama Dardanelli (niece of the maestro) in the title role, Giovanni David as Ormondo, Luigi Sirletti as Lenox, and Luigi Lablache as Duglas (sic) - which roster of stars  would nowadays fill La Scala three times over.  It is unnecessary to report that poor Carlini’s melodramma with such a boldly proclaimed source and with such a dedicatee  promptly vanished without a trace,  deleted from all  record with wonderful efficiency[3].

This was a shame.  Though Carlini’s  dramma serio was certainly viewed with dismay by the Royal Palace in Naples (and by its dedicatee, naturally) it was in fact a fairly innocuous effort with some attempts at historical accuracy; the villain “Ormondo”  may have been nothing but a bland personification of Mary’s hooligan of a third husband, Bothwell, and the Congiurati, who figure prominently,  merely release the Queen from the durance vile of the “Castello di Dombar”. But the theme had become political dynamite, of course. 1818, in its own way, was a watershed for dissent. Naturally the dangerous political acquaintances of the incautious Queen of Scots had not escaped eagle eyes in Naples. The legends had been grimly noted. During her English seclusion all sorts of plots and plans to release the imprisoned queen had flown back and forth - or so the stories go. Arising from a convoluted version of the Babington plot of 1586 (referred to in Bardari’s libretto for Donizetti) in which Elizabeth’s assassination was fully envisaged, a whole host of conspiratorial  myths, fantasies and inventions had been put forward by continental sympathisers. That they were absurd was no impediment to their dissemination. Indeed, the most fantastic of all supplied the most potent impetus for political change, that an undercover chain of seditious charcoal-burners secretly deployed throughout the forests of England could have been a cover for a band of sworn conspirators intent upon the destitution of the “usurped” throne.

The Romantic Era was always ready to adopt extravagant metaphors for its most serious projects.  Dreams, visions and technicoloured improbabilities were the currency of the day.  But none of this was good news for Mary Stuart, and certainly not in 1818.  She, like Carlini’s opera, was fatally compromised by association.   As far as the Bourbons were concerned she went back into the woodwork for good.   That the Neapolitan branch was descended from Mary Stuart was no excuse  (they were equally descended from the Tudors),   nor was her decapitation any kind of mitigation  (there were far more bloody examples in recent times),  it was  conspiracy that undid her. Even 30 years later Verdi could write (to Piave): “They allowed Ernani, so they might allow this too, as there is no conspiracy"[4].  Conspiracy was the ultimate unforgivable sin,  indeed  pathologically-so as far as  the Bourbons of Naples were concerned.   A TRIUMPH OF THE CARBONARI was not to be contemplated, not even in the cause of any martyred Catholic queen - ancestral or otherwise.  It needed no spelling-out ...“ sarebbe inutile un più minuto dettaglio” as it says so cogently in the libretto.


Breaking the ice - Coccia's Mary Stuart of 1827

In London, free from the shadow of the Bourbons, Coccia turned his attention to this unhappy tale. Possibly  it was a declaration of independence,  perhaps exile had made him bold - there is no way of telling.  Maybe Pasta herself made the choice,  certainly she favoured regal models for her art and went to Westminster Abbey to view the tomb of the martyr.   We know nothing more than this.  Pietro Giannone, his modenese expatriate librettist, was certainly  aware of the explosive nature of this theme at home but he too played his cards close to his chest. The title page of the opera reads as follows:




In Tre Atti.









For Coccia, the project was full of novelty.   In a London resounding to the portentous accents of Weber and Beethoven his orchestration took wings,  a darker mood began to infiltrate the Rossinian certainties that had for some time been his anchor.  In the city where Shakespearean tragedy was a yardstick for dramatic integrity something more than facile diversion was mandatory, especially if his hard-won operatic sobriety was not be crucified unmercifully by the critics.  And then too he had the great star at his disposal.  Music and text would be obliged to bridge a credibility gap between the perception of Italian Opera as mere vocal entertainment and a relatively sophisticated audience. Only with  Pasta’s name at his disposal  could he have dared tackle such a theme. Through English eyes -  through  those now of Coccia  -  Mary Stuart needed very careful  handling,  her unprecedented oleographic aura made demands that would have nonplussed even a native composer.  Above all else there must have been a fear of inadvertently offending the susceptibilities of those very  same people to whom  she had lost her head so many years before;  his own head, he may have felt, could well be poised above the very same block.

That discretion was paramount is obvious by the text.  Giannone  bends over  nearly backwards to do some kind of factual justice to his heroine and her all-powerful rival.  Indeed, comparing Giannone’s Maria Stuart with the Maria Stuarda of Bardari for Donizetti reveals the latter to be not just concise but a miracle of temerity.  Coccia’s opera was one of the most wordy ever performed it would seem,  there are sub-plots galore.  His  cast  is much longer and differs significantly:  Maria, Elisabetta, Leicester, Cecil (called Burleigh here  - his real-life title) and Anna,  are more or less the same in both  operas  but the role of Talbot (arch-loyal to Elizabeth in history, and whose noble descendents would certainly have gone to law  had he been portrayed otherwise) is split between Melvil,  a Scottish rather than English  sympathiser, who takes on some of Talbot’s role  as well as part of that of Leicester,  while new is Paoletto (i.e. Sir Amyas Paulet - Mary Stuart’s chilling jailor at Fotheringhay Castle)  and a certain  Mortimero [6] , or Sir Mortimero - his nephew (or son-in-law, it is not clear at all) -  a stripling at once in love with the Scottish Queen, a romantic bungler and a Babington figure of sorts as well as an outright amorous rival to the two-timing Leicester.

Giannone’s  lack of focus is disconcerting.  Three scenes only can be found in  exact parallel with that of Donizetti:  Maria’s outdoor excursion into the park of the castle (Act 1 Sc.10);  the infamous “dialogo delle due regine” as Donizetti wryly calls it (Act I Sc.12);  and the final  scene of the scaffold (Act 3 Sc.4),  all the rest differ greatly.  In no case are the verses quite the same, but they are similar.  Elisabetta is as antagonistic in Coccia as in Donizetti but less ironic and has more scruples;  Maria is more arrogant (which makes her execution more logical), indeed she is superbly boastful but less vulgar;  Leicester’s double-dealing is more overt (but this may have been nothing but the truth);  important differences include an unconcealed duplicity on the part of every character on the stage -  which may  have been a current view of the Tudors in  London in 1827,  plus one major and significant difference:  an assassination attempt upon Elisabetta during the angry squall between the two queens, which is the actual trigger for the execution of the  hated rival.  It was not  a gratuitous insult addressed to  Anne Boleyn (who too had been given a recent whitewashing) which led her distant cousin to the axe - the “fishwife” slanging-match of Donizetti’s libretto would never have been permitted  in London,  no more than in Milan.#

The most obvious difference of all, however, especially to Italian eyes, is the absence of religion:   Maria is not a Catholic heroine in Coccia’s opera.  No one (and certainly not the English Catholics) took her religious credentials very seriously   -  after all she had married two protestants  -   except in that they precluded her from claiming to be heir to the throne. The conflict is  one of statecraft,  not of reformed religion.   There is no confession scene,  no absolution, no concealed vestments, no crucifix  (in its place is a love scene between Maria and Leicester!).  The irony of course, is that the King of Naples could have found little to complain-of on this particular account[7] .  Coccia may even have hoped to be able to revive the opera  one day  at home -  pace  the misadventure of poor Carlini.  In this he was doomed to disappointment, his opera was performed four times  and never again, not anywhere in the world.  It was not the parting triumph he might have hoped for.  All sorts of clumsy hitches seem to have afflicted the staging in London.  It was badly rehearsed it appears, the singers took great liberties with their music improvising boldly  and  inserting cadenzas without warning. It was poorly dressed (according to some accounts) and  the orchestra did not know its music  - no wonder it puzzled many listeners.   All of which  catalogue of defects is perfectly astonishing when, after all, Coccia was musical director of the theatre in question. It was far too long.    Due to its length,  it was shortened even before the prima and then successively over the four evenings so that one third of its music at least was missing at the final curtain.  But these cuts have a certain relevance:  Maria Stuart,  regina di Scozia  in the form it was performed on  its last days  resembles very closely  that of  Maria Stuarda as written by Donizetti in Naples in 1834.  Its structure, sequence, content and dramatic flow are very much the same.  This may be one of the first of the many  compelling  reasons  for claiming that it was the genial Neapolitan Carlo Coccia  who  supplied a model to his Bergamasc friend when he got back to his native city.   Coccia took the score with him under his arm when he left  London for Italy a few months later.  It was still in his possession at his death in 1873.

Coccia’s roster of singers was not the least interesting aspect of his staging. Apart from Giuditta Pasta in the title-role there was an unconventional Elisabetta - a role scarcely less important.  This was a newcomer, a soprano who would later assume the same role at La Scala at the official prima of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda  in 1835. As such, she too would be a potent link between the two maestri. Giacinta Toso, the piemontese wife of the celebrated horn player Giovanni Puzzi, was something of an enigma [8] , she had been taking lessons from Coccia in London, or so it would seem, and had established herself there. Together with her part-time impresario of a husband they had rented a large house in Piccadilly where they gave fashionable concerts for almost a half century, only shaking off the London murk after his death in 1876 when she also returned home.  Among the famous singers whose concerts the Puzzi couple hosted and which brought them a considerable fortune were Pasta herself, Giulia Grisi, Rubini, Mario, Lablache, Tamburini, Duprez, Jenny Lind, Fraschini, and significantly - the charismatic Maria Malibran, and later her sister Pauline Viardot. 

The subsequent equation   Coccia + Giacinta Puzzi-Toso + Malibran = Donizetti  throws some light upon the otherwise rather puzzling choice of Elisabetta to sing  in the true prima of Donizetti’s opera in 1835. She was not an inconsiderable actress according to the reviews but being scarcely twenty-years-old, and very tall,  she had difficulty  in portraying the middle-aged Virgin Queen who, in real life was not much taller than her modern counterpart. This notwithstanding, she  had a mini-triumph and sang with distinction. The tenor  Alberico Curioni sang the role of Roberto Dudley; the profondo Filippo Galli that of Cecil; another tenor Giuseppe Torri that of Mortimero and the basso Arturo Giubilei that of Melvil,  with the small roles of Paoletto, Seymour and Anna sung by De Angeli, Deville and Nina Cornega respectively. All these artists (with the exception of the three last) had substantial music to sing, Coccia was as generous with his music as Giannone with his text. Each had a show-piece of sorts  - that is, before everything began to slip away over the four eventful days at the King’s Theatre.

Coccia program


Grasping the nettle - Donizetti's Maria Stuarda of 1834/5 

In the Maria Stuarda  of Donizetti,  a fictional confrontation of the two queens -   Schiller’s brainchild- is made theatrically irresistible by their invective, thus elevating popular romanticism to an artform vividly dependant upon a feeling for historical justice,  however nonsensical.  In Coccia’s Maria Stuart there is nothing of the kind, despite a vicious encounter worthy of the German fantasist. This was not only through an  immediate threat of  indignant departure of the audience - vulgarity was scorned in the  royal theatres -  but because both queens were embedded in an immutable charisma they had acquired over the years:  Queen Elizabeth I was an icon, “Gloriana”,  impassive,  high-nosed  bejewelled and  superb;   Mary Queen of Scots (as she was always called) was douce, “unfortunate”,  perpetually young, a domestic print of sweet sentiment in adversity.  Both queens indeed (probably  justifiably) would have been thought incapable of such behaviour, indeed Donizetti’s opinion that “those two queens were whores” (“ma p... erano quelle due”) would not have gone down well at all. The two operas took their point of departure from differing stage conventions: Coccia’s opera was a (moderately) decorous  historical tapestry;  Donizetti’s opera was a love-story in which neither woman wins (despite a veneer of religiosity): “ due illustri rivali”  in fact - an important libretto theme of the day. It was a case of two operas with  a common recipe, but a different audience in mind.   

The music, however, of   Maria Stuart, regina di Scozia,  would have astonished Coccia’s admirers in Italy and pleased Donizetti.  Nothing remained of Paisiello’s tutelage,  nothing of the Rossinian bucolic charm which had invested his Clotilde[9] still going the rounds.  From the beginning he offered an unsettling sombre score, arrestingly coloured and full of urgent pulsation, bouncing rhythms, dotted-note patterns and a vocalism abounding in florid ascending and descending scale passages which  set-off its extraordinary length and variety.  Coccia  now unveiled the remarkable operatic continuity,  the  ostinati  and mastery of ground-bass that would distinguish all his later stageworks.   This was new.   The orchestra - moulded by Coccia over four long years  -  was replete with wildly  dramatic and extended obbligati, intermezzi and mini-concerti for favoured wind-players (one of them Giovanni Puzzi) so that its perception as  an Italian opera  -  Pasta, Curioni et al, notwithstanding, was viewed with some scepticism by its audience.  There were those who considered he had surrendered too much to romantic ardour.  Ambitious, fascinating, full of energy, its best features did not quite dispel the impression that the composer was yet only half-way to something new.

Nine pieces were published in vocal score in London, but nothing in full score.  They are as follows:

Act 1

In quella torre infausta  cavatina (Leicester) Act 1 Sc.2
Quale audacia! in te credei duetto (Maria/Mortimero) Act 1 Sc.7
Scende al core   cavatina  (Maria) Act 1 Sc.10
Ecco l’indegna (finale primo) Act 1 Sc.12

Act II

Come mi palpita  duetto (Maria/Leicester con pertichini) Act II Sc.4
Tremante atterito quartettino (Burleigh/Mortimero/Maria/Leicester) do.
A que’ detti, a qual sembiante  duetto(Elisabetta/Leicester) Act II Sc.5


Tu, cui fanno al ciel diletto  duetto (Maria/Melvil) Act III Sc.3
Sposo! ah teco or tu mi vuoi aria finale (Maria) Act III Sc.4

That these were the most immediately attractive pieces in the score will be clear, but nearly half of them were brutally dropped during the bloodbath of performance.  Leicester’s cavatina‘In quella torre infausta’ was cut with its recitative; Maria’s brilliant duet with Mortimero ‘Quale audacia! in te credei’ also was cut  revealing that even his most vivid music was not spared;  the touching encounter between Maria and Melvil which forms part of the final dénouement ‘Tu, cui fanno al ciel diletto’  (whose parallel in Donizetti’s opera would have to be the valedictory duet ‘Or che morente è il raggio’ between Maria and Talbot) lost its two opening quatrains. Of the unpublished music most of the Act 1 Introduzione was cut;  Paoletto’s recitative in Act 1 Sc.5 was dropped;  as was Maria’s recitative in Sc.6;  in Act II all of the opening  music -  Scenes 1 and 2 and half of Sc.3 were cut;  so was all of Sc.6 thus removing Burleigh’s aria con coro; all of Sc.8 and two-thirds of Sc.9 also vanished depriving Elisabetta of most of the aria that ends the act.  Act III - the shortest in the opera - lost only the  part of the duet mentioned above.  Of the portions that survived we can make several important comparisons with Donizetti’s later score. Though Coccia’s  Maria  makes an early appearance in the unfolding of the argument - unlike in Maria Stuarda - it is her “freedom” aria in the park of Fotheringhay that  first invites an immediate comparison:


Coccia Act 1 Sc.10 Parco del Castello di Fotheringay


                            Ebben, si goda.
D’un momento di gioia-Oh mira! dove’
Sorgon que’bigi monti, ivi è la dolce
Mia Scozia; è queste nubi
Che discendon di là, fors’han veduta
De’ miei padri la reggia!
E ver la Francia or vanno!-Oh, salutate
Quelle al mio cor sì grate
Soavi sponde, o nuvole leggiere!
Siate voi di Maria la messaggiere.


Donizetti Act 1 Sc.4 Parco di Forteringa


Su’ prati appare
Odorosetta e bella
La famiglia de’fiori...e a me sorride,
E il zeffiro che torna
Da’bei lidi di Francia,
Ch’io gioisca mi dice
Come alla prima gioventù felice.
Oh, nube! che lieve per l’aria t‘aggiri,
Tu reca il mio affetto, to reca i sospiri
Al suolo beato che un dì mi nudri,
Deh, scendi cortese, mi accogli sui vanni,
Mi rendi alla Francia

There are many striking similarities above of course.  Coccia’s aria for Maria “Scende al core, inebbria  l’alma” follows the same ecstatic vein as the above, but his cabaletta has a totally different mood:

O suon, che ricordi
   I giorni ridenti
   Di puri contenti,
   D’innocui piacer.
Tu scacci dal petto
   Le cure segrete,
   D’immagini liete
   Tu m’empj il pensier

Sung by Pasta con coro upon hearing the hunting horns, which announce the imminent arrival of Elisabetta, it could scarcely be in greater contrast with Donizetti’s violent equivalent:

Nella pace del mesto riposo
Vuol colpirmi di nuovo spavento
Io la chiesi..e vederla non oso...
Tal coraggio nell’alma mi sento!

From the outset the later composer has elected to stress  a far more telling portrayal of the two queens, Maria’s ‘innocui piacer’ is never in evidence.  Their actual  confrontation in the finale primo of Maria Stuart, regina di Scozia - which ends Act 1 (as is the case with the modern (critical edition) of Maria Stuarda) - contains many further moments in common.  Coccia’s “Dialogo delle due regine” is a very much more protracted affair, some thirty minutes of music in all  and is divided into marked blocks of concertati. It lacks the focus as well as the vehemence of the later version, but  its pacing, pregnant pauses and menace are anything but ineffective. Here again the sequence of events is closely parallelled in Maria Stuarda. The ladies view each other from afar with disdain opening with their mutual -


      Ecco l’indegna

Maria, in due course, conceals her repugnance and kneels before her rival; her humiliation is not received gracefully:

Coccia Act 1 finale primo


O Sorella! Il ciel decise
    A mio danno, a tuo favore;
    Or pietà ti schiuda il core
    Per chi tanto, oh dio! soffri....


Questo loco a te conviene.


Donizetti Act 1 finale primo


Ah! Sorella ormai ti basti
      quanto oltraggio a me recasti
       Deh! Solleva un’infelice
       che riposa sul tuo cor.


No, quel loco a te si addice

Her crucial response, however,  is less pungent, if equally forthright:



Non già da’tuoi natali,
     Retaggio hai tu d’onore:
     Si sa per quale errore
     La madre tua perì.






No. Figlia impura di Bolena
      Parli tu di disonore?
      Meretrice indegna oscena,
      in te cada il mio rossore.
      Profanato è il suolo Inglese:
      vil bastarda dal tuo piè.


Guardie! Olà

At this precise point in Coccia’s score Maria claims to be Queen of England:


      Oh! nella polvere
Discendi omai dal trono:
La tue regina io sono:
Tu dei cadermì al piè

which bold assertion is immediately followed by the assassination attempt upon the furious monarch in question, and as a result of which Maria is led back to her prison in a flurry of quasi-canonic choral imprecations. There is no sense of triumph for Mary Stuart in Coccia’s opera.

Musically, this finale primo of Coccia is fascinating and its not-at-all coincidental relationship with that of Donizetti distinctly tantalising.  The whole encounter  pulsates, from the cheerful hunting horns of the opening to the fighting-cock glares  and postures of the rivals which are set-off by a gaily tripping figure, curling and twisting like a sardonic commentary;  the actual insult to the angry Tudor having a prefatory ostinato that goes even further - a figuration that resembles nothing so much as a bouncing rubber ball happily pointing her wounding remarks.  In general, this tripping arabesque  is set for strings - in Coccia sometimes underpinned by woodwind -  as is Donizetti’s mocking equivalent with precisely the same lightness and in precisely the same malicious context.  If Coccia takes more time than Donizetti to come to the point, he is at once more faithful to Schiller’s original (where an assassination attempt also features) and supplies an admirable model.

Donizetti’s Act II too could find earlier parallels in Coccia (his ‘Quella vita a me funesta’ for Elisabetta, for instance, is parallelled by Coccia’s ‘Pretesto agl’infidi!’ [10] with the same bitter accusations and at which time too she signs Maria’s Sentence of death).  The scene at the scaffold, above all, contains many moments which have become familiar in the later opera:  Burleigh announces Elisabetta’s willingness to accede to Maria’s final wishes; as Leicester is present throughout  (or perhaps because he is present throughout)  Maria addresses her final thoughts to Darnley (very oddly, perhaps, historically speaking)

‘Sposo! ah teco or tu mi vuoi’ in an ethereal cantabile to be sung softly -  which Pasta did to huge effect;  there is no preghiera of course.  She is half-fainting, Leicester supports her,  thus her cabaletta ultima as an uncanny resemblance to that of the opera to be written seven years later:  

Coccia Act III cabaletta ultima


Tardi ahi troppo! a un infelice
   La promessa, o conte, attieni!
   Cosi a reggermi tu vieni
   Del mio carcere ad uscir!

Donizetti Act II cabaletta ultima


Ah! Se un giorno da queste ritorte
Il tuo braccio involarmi dovea,
or mi guidi a morire da forte
per estremo conforto d’amor.

The apocalyptic canon shot which announces the end of Maria Stuarda, and the ‘flagello punitor’ supplied so movingly by the great Bergamesc,  have no equivalent, alas, in the opera of his predecessor.

It will be asked: what music from Coccia’s Maria Stuart, regina di Scozia was available for Donizetti to see in Naples in 1834?   Girard published six pieces in vocal score [11] ; from Act 1 the duetto ‘Quale audacia! in te credei’ and Maria’s cavatina ‘Scende al core’;  from Act II ‘Come mi palpita’ and ‘A que’detti, a qual sembiante’;   from Act III ‘Tu, cui fanno al ciel’ and the affecting aria finale for the heroine  ‘Sposo! ah teco or tu mi vuoi’.   As one of these pieces at least had been discarded in London it seems improbable that they played any part in the engendering of his score. More probably, Carlo Coccia - who was Musical Director of the San Carlo in that very year of 1834 - allowed Donizetti to examine  the full-score in his possession and a copy of Giannone’s libretto. In addition - to whet his appetite - Pasta could have shown him some of the music from the earlier opera either at the time of Anna Bolena or more recently at the time of the revision of Fausta.

More urgently, it will be asked if Donizetti knew that the topic of Mary Stuart was taboo with the Bourbons?  That Coccia was unaware is frankly unbelievable, he made no attempt to revive his opera in Naples, despite its partial publication.  And Donizetti?  I suggest that the use of a near-adolescent poet to supply the verses for Maria Stuarda is sufficiently improbable as to postulate a tactical cover to defuse royal displeasure. Indeed the offended innocence of the celebrated maestro at the banning of his opera has always been a trifle disingenuous. We know that Giovanna Gray was immediately put forward as an alternative subject. She had been kept in reserve, so to speak. But, it will be asked, was this not yet another royal martyr?  Another bloody victim from whom one could claim descent?  Another “sad subject” unsuitable for gala occasions?  Would not the King/Queen/censura have objected equally to any such decapitated   substitute?

Il nostro,  however, I would respectfully suggest, was fully aware that the ill-treated Jane Grey was not under unsolicited escort from a coven of carbonari!   Ferdinando II was not to be trifled-with, she was brushed aside and the Queen of Dissent had to wait for her nemesis at La Scala the following year.

Donizetti’s deportment, in this respect, I dare say, could be described as  artless. His art, however  - as we all know  -  is all in  his music.


[1] At the Teatro Comunitativo in Ravenna,  for example,  the Comica  Compagnia Alessandro Riva and others succeeded in performing  most  of these plays  between 1804 and 1810.

[2] Also set  to music by Carlo  Coccia:      Edoardo in Iscozia  (lib.Gilardoni),  Naples S.Carlo 8.5.1831

[3] It features neither in Schmidl, Caselli, Sesini, Melisi,  Dassori,  Regli or Stieger. Ottavio Tiby, Il Real Teatro Carolino e L’Ottocento musicale palermitano (Firenze 1957), 384) names the opera, but “Maria Stuarda...L.Carlini”  is the sum total of his entry and it can only be concluded that he saw  neither a note of the music nor a word of the text.  A  manuscript full score  is preserved, however,  in the Biblioteca del Infante Don Francisco de Paula of  Madrid.

[4] Letter of 28 April 1850, upon Rigoletto   (cf Budden  Le Opere di Verdi, Vol.1  (Torino 1985), 521

[5] The autograph score of Coccia’s Maria Stuart, regina di Scozia  is preserved in the Istituto Civico Musicale Brera di Novara; its text has the appearance of being an earlier version of that which was performed in London in 1827.

[6] This name, Mortimer or Mortimero, is a standby  of  the opera of the day, sometimes spelled “Wortimer”. It has never been quite clear which nobleman precisely is intended by generations of librettists.

[7] But  the King of Naples in 1827 was Francesco  I  -   SUA ALTEZZA REALE IL DUCA DI CALABRIA -  of the Carlini débâcle of 1818. 

[8] Giacinta Puzzi-Toso (1807-1889). Curiously  enough, among the handful of roles she sang in London, was Matilde in Rossini’s Elisabetta,regina d’Inghilterra, with Adelaide Tosi in the title-role, which she sang at the King’s Theatre the following year. The “modest vocal means” thus attributed to her recently in the “Edizione Critica” of Maria Stuarda  are quite unfounded.

[9]  Clotilde   melodramma semiserio in due atti, libretto by Gaetano Rossi  (Venice 1815), had been an enduring popular  success and was performed   into the sixth decade of the nineteenth century.

[10] Puzzi-Toso was very highly praised for her singing of this bipartite aria even if it was heavily cut.

[11] These can be ascribed  to 1831.

Article first published on the website in 2005



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