Suspected of being complicit in Lord Babington’s plot to have Queen Elisabetta removed from the English throne, Maria Stuarda has been imprisoned in Fotheringhay Castle and is awaiting sentencing. She forges an alliance with Lord Talbot, and a relationship with the Earl of Leicester, who persuades her to write to Elisabetta, pleading for pity and asking her to visit Maria, so that she might demonstrate her innocence.
Despite Elisabetta’s reservations, the meeting is arranged. In the park next to Fotheringhay, Maria kneels before Elisabetta, determined to show her innocence through her humility, in this act of respect. But Elisabetta has no pity for Maria, particularly now that she knows about her relationship with Leicester. She tells Maria that her opinion of her is unchanged, and she firmly believes she should stay there in the dirt. Maria is humiliated, and calls out to Leicester for support, but his previous vows to avenge Maria’s plight have been quickly forgotten.
Maria knows that her fate is sealed. There is nothing she can do now to save herself, so she summons all her anger and venom, and has her own vengeance. Here, in public, Maria tells Elisabetta exactly what she thinks of her; she is the bastard daughter of the old King’s mistress, and her illegitimacy is profaning the throne of England. Furious, Elisabetta sentences Maria to death.
In her hour of need, Maria confides in Lord Talbot, who is secretly a catholic priest. He hears her confession, and absolves her of her sins. Maria walks to the scaffold firm in the knowledge that she is going into the arms of her god.
As one of the Tudor Queens series of bel canto operas, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda takes an imagined moment in British history and creates an opera filled with rivalry and passion, to a stunning score which requires exceptionally skilled virtuoso singers to do it real justice.
Maria Stuarda guide sections