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Maria Stuarda (1834)
Maria Stuarda is the second of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy, the drama focusing on the rivalry between Mary Stuart and Anna Bolena’s daughter Elizabeth I. This opera explores the final days and the execution of Marie Queen of Scotts. In 1587, Maria Stuarda (Mary Stewart), Queen of Scotland, has been held prisoner for several years by her cousin Elisabetta, Queen of England. Roberto, Earl of Leicester, whom Elisabetta is secretly in love, wants to help Maria, who declares his love and proposes marriage to her. He advises Maria to be respectful towards her powerful cousin. But the two queens face off at a meeting where craziness leads Elisabetta to sign the death warrant for Maria, who has publicly insulted her. The cruelty of Elisabetta, consumed by jealousy, goes as far as demanding that Roberto attend Maria’s execution.
An interview with Mezzo Soprano, Kate Aldrich
We decided to share more about this opera and listening examples through a new set of eyes. Kate Aldrich, an American mezzo-soprano, was called by the San Francisco Sentinel as “the Carmen of this Generation” after her debut with the San Francisco Opera. Kate Aldrich has performed the title role in Bizet’s opera in such theaters as the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Metropolitan Opera, Opernhaus Zürich, San Francisco Opera, and Arena di Verona. While Kate lives in Rome, she reminded us of how much opera happens outside the US, specifically in Germany.
Did you know that in non-COVID times, in Germany alone, there is more opera going on in one night than there is in all of the US? It’s no surprise why American singers flock to Europe when starting their careers.
Kate has a vast repertoire, including the title role in La Cenerentola, Adalgisa in Norma, Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda, Charlotte in Werther, Eboli in Don Carlo, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, and Marguerite in La damnation de Faust.
Before we get into the interview, we wanted to share Kate singing Elizabeth’s opening aria from Maria Stuarda, “Ah! quando all'ara scorgemi”. At this moment, the French ambassador has brought a marriage proposal to Queen Elizabeth. She considers the proposal, one which would create an alliance with France, but she is reluctant to give up her freedom and also pardon her cousin Mary Stuart, the former Queen of Scots, whom she put in prison because of various plots against her throne.
🎧 Listening example (3 minute listen): “Ah! quando all'ara scorgemi”, sung by Kate Aldrich, San Diego Opera
Describe yourself in a hashtag.
What three people living or dead, would you like to make dinner for?
Julia Child, Tatiana Troyanos, my late maternal grandmother.
What’s one ingredient you put in everything?
Olive oil and lemon juice!
Best piece of advice you’ve received?
Sleep on it.
Before you sing, do you eat or drink anything special?
I usually have one large meal in the early mid-afternoon of a performance. I prefer to cook it myself if I can, and usually, it consists of protein and vegetables. For years my go-to was a frittata with potatoes and whatever veggies needed to be cleaned out of the fridge and used up before the gig is done!
What was the last role you performed?
What are your favorite roles to sing?
Eboli in Don Carlo, Charlotte in Werther, Marguerite in La damnation de Faust, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda
Have you always known you wanted to be a singer or did the passion develop over time?
I was always very musical, but I was a horn player who also took voice lessons, had a rock band, and loved jazz. I think I got the bug in college when I realized that opera could pull all of those theatrical and creative elements together. I think I only knew I aspired to be an opera singer my junior or senior year of college. I honestly doubt I even really knew what that was before then.
If you could play one aria for someone who has never listened to any opera, what would it be?
I think it depends on the listener. With some people I would immediately go to “Deh vieni non tardar” from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, or “Ach, ich fühl's” from The Magic Flute, or even the Queen of the night arias from The Magic Flute. Others I might go to “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca or “Sempre libera” from Verdi's La Traviata. Alternatively I’d go with “Casta diva” from the opera Norma by Bellini or “La fleur que tu m'avais jetée”, Don José's aria from Carmen. There is such a wealth of repertoire with so many strengths and styles. I’d base it on what I know about the listener, but I’d likely tend to go with the more sufferance and struggle arias. That’s my happy place. Strauss songs, “Das Lied von der Erde” or “Kindertotenlieder” by Mahler. The schizophrenia of Berlioz... the lushness of Wagner...
Which recording(s) of Maria Stuarda do you think are not to be missed?
Monserrat Caballé and Shirley Verrett, no question. Verrett makes my teeth tickle in the opening recitative.
🎧 Listening example (9 minute listen): “Ah! quando all'ara scorgemi”, sung by Shirley Verrett
Any misconceptions about the opera, Maria Stuarda, you'd like to share with the audience?
Obviously, there are some historical discrepancies, but I’m not going to delve into those. It’s very easy to fall in love with Maria as the victim, and Elisabetta as the delicious villain in this opera. A good production or recording should make you doubt that convention. Maria aspires for power and the throne. Elisabetta is incredibly ambitious yet highly empathic, making her vulnerable. Leaning into those two simple ideas, or, even better, developing those concepts, makes for a very rich story without betraying the score.
What is your favorite part of the opera to sing?
I always have loved the opening of Act 2. We see Elisabetta behind the mask— she is so conflicted between what she sees as her God-given responsibility to her country and God, and her familial connection with her cousin and what God expects of her in that regard that it is making her crazy. We see inside her most private thoughts, and we see an intimate view of what we would today define as possible mental illness. It is a total storm and conflict of what she wants, what she aspires to, what she feels, and what is expected of her in an incredibly tumultuous time in history.
🎧 Listening example (2 minute listen): Mary's prayer from Act 2 of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, sung by Joyce DiDonato
What is the hardest part of the opera? The vocal range? Pacing? Being called a "bastarda"!?
The opening recitative and aria are tricky but so rewarding. You have to establish who you are in the first phrase of the recitative. The aria itself then turns inward and becomes very intimate, riding on the razor’s edge of the passaggio much of the time, making it challenging to sing with ease, and yet you have to sound vulnerable and intimate. This has to sound easy, which is not easy! The confrontation scene, contrarily, in the huge moment of “Figlia impura Di Bolena, parli tu di disonore? is just a paradise of emotion. Elisabetta has contained all of her responsibilities, feelings, duties to God, country, and throne. When Anna calls her a “vile bastard”, she has given Elisabetta license to let go of any moral code she has been hanging on to. Anna unknowingly or fatalistically knowingly, unleashes the dragon with those words and her own (and Elisabetta’s own) fate. It gives so much pleasure to play that moment. Moments we will likely never experience in our real lives!
🎧 Listening example (9 minute listen): Montserrat Caballé and Shirley Verrett go for it during this 1971 La Scala Confrontation Scene, from a remastered RCA album.
Want a juicy detail about this moment in Maria Stuarda?
An interesting confrontation took place between the two leading ladies during one of the rehearsals before the opera opened. Soprano Giuseppina Ronzi di Begnis was singing the role of Maria, and soprano Anne del Serre the role of Elisabetta. Di Begnis uttered such a committed “vil bastarda” that del Serre took it as a personal insult and the two divas came to blows! Del Serre was carried fainting from the theatre. 🤪
You've sung Giovanna in Anna Bolena and Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda, correct? Tell us your experiences! What would you like people to know about the opera(s)?
Giovanna is insecure, vulnerable, dangerous but constant. Elisabetta is confident, but her weakness is her empathy. The two operas may follow a similar musical language, but their stories and what they give to the audience couldn’t be more different. I find the women fascinating in both of these operas, and it seems clear to me that Donizetti felt the same way, based on the way he wrote for them.
Would you like to round it out one day and sing Sara in Roberto Devereux?
I would love to!
You sing everything from Vivaldi to Wagner and everything in between. What is it about bel canto opera you love so much?
In many ways, bel canto is like the olympics of opera—not just for the technique of singing in the physical sense, but also for the subtlety of expression, and what you can uncover from the “skeleton” of the musical score. It is left to be unraveled for who wants to do so, and that challenge has no ending point. You can always find something new to add.
Ask me about this, and I will tell you a good story.
That time my now husband and I were punched in a movie theater by a senator’s call-girl girlfriend. They escaped. We never finished the movie, and I still don’t know how the movie ended. Or the senator. Or the call girl.
🤔Know someone who’d enjoy this interview?
Big thank you to Kate for sharing her talents with the world and her thoughts with all of us today. 🙏🏼
🗣 Have a question for Kate? Leave it in the comments, and we will ping her for an answer!
Thank you for reading and listening!
If you would like to experience the full opera, you can find two productions below.
Maria Stuarda, Gaetano Donizetti
Orchestra and chorus, La Scala, 2008, Anna Caterina Antonacci (Elisabetta), Mariella Devia (Maria Stuarda), Paola Gardina (Anna Kennedy), Francesco Meli (Lester), Simone Alberghini (Talbot), Pietro Terranova (Cecil), Antonino Fogliani, Conductor
WATCH AND LISTEN
Maria Stuarda, Gaetano Donizetti
London Philharmonic Orchestra, 2001, Beverly Sills, Eileen Farrell, Stuart Burrows, Louis Quilico, John Alldis Choir, Aldo Ceccato, conductor
WATCH AND LISTEN