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Realizing Mary

From Mary’s last letter to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England:

“Accuse me not of presumption if, leaving this world and preparing myself for a better, I remind you will one day to give account of your charge, in like manner as those who preceded you in it, and that my blood and the misery of my country will be remembered, wherefor from the earliest dawn of your comprehension we ought to dispose our minds to make things temporal yield to those of eternity.

Your sister and cousin wrongfully a prisoner,

Mary's signature)

Photo © Ken Howard

Photo © Ken Howard

It is difficult to express how much this run of Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera has impacted to me.  The opera itself suffered a complicated birth to be sure, having suffered numerous rewrites, cancellations, postponements, and a myriad of different kinds of performances along the way.  History occupies a backseat in the opera giving way to a contrived telling of rival queens, a fabricated love triangle, and a purified version of the title character.  (Donizetti knew his audience ~ a staunchly Roman Catholic public who expected a Maria who would embrace her martyrdom and reign over the Protestant rival.)  Yet here we are 177 years later, and each evening I step into my modest black frock and take a journey from hope to darkness, finally returning to light each evening, and a journey unfolds that surprises me with every single performance.

As Maria arrives nearly 40 minutes into the piece, she is the Mary of her youth – a very athletic, active young woman, relishing the chance to take in the open sky and fresh air for the first time in years since her captivity began (roughly 7 or 8 years in our production). She is still hopeful, still writes letters to Elizabeth pleading her case, and still in correspondance with Leicester who fills her with hope of her release.  Crowned as Queen of Scotland at only 6 days old, the opening scene finds Mary overcome with emotion in remembering her distant childhood homeland of France, carried away with memories of joy and freedom, truly overwhelmed by her senses.  Can you imagine having been confined in a damp, chilly castle, (OK – so she wasn’t in Angola, to be fair, but still … !), cut off from your loved ones for years, taking in very little sunlight, very little fresh air, and finally to be let outdoors?  … the sunlight? … the grass? … the trees? … the sheer SPACE? Ah, les souvenirs …

It is a tragically short lived moment of melancholy bliss for her, as Royal trumpets sound in the distance. It could be a death warrant, or it could be her freedom, but the anxiety overcomes her.  She learns that the Queen, herself, is on her way. Mary is in no way prepared for this unannounced visit, even though she has been pleading for it for years. She confesses her fear that she does not possess the courage or strength to face her.  Following Schiller’s stroke of playwriting genius, we are set up for the showdown of these two rival Queens. What strikes me as terribly tragic about this situation is that they are the only two humans on the face of the earth at that very moment who could possibly have understand the other, and if circumstances had been different, they likely could have been the best of friends.  Instead, for how things had played out (politically, religiously) their destiny was that of enemies in every arena.  Face to face, they are seeing each other in the flesh for the very first time ~ all they had imagined, all they had envisioned was now personified in living form before their own eyes: the intense curiosity … the utter fascination … the gripping fear … the understandable defense … the certain jealousy … Schiller and Donizetti knew it was ripe for explosive drama.

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Photo © Ken Howard

I think Mary (having reluctantly agreed to supplicate herself to not only plead for her life, but to also broker some kind of peace in England) knows very quickly that there will be no pardon on this day.  She sees it in Elizabeth’s eyes from the very first moment, and yet, the English Court is present, so she wills herself to follow through with her promise.  This is no longer about herself, but she is now working purely as a raw political figure.  She takes the vitriolic insults and the power play by the Queen for as long as she can, until she can hold her tongue no longer, and we get some of Donizetti’s most surprising, inspired writing.  (It’s a fabulous thing that a modern audience can still audibly react to the vehement, indignant outburst of Mary!)

One of the reasons I think this matchup is so dramatically powerful, is because both women are not simply hurling petty insults in a glorified, operatic cat fight.  No. They are each speaking the truth as they know it and have lived it for years, casting a righteous air to hover over both of them.  Mary did seduce numerous men under suspicious circumstances, and her wedding bed was hardly pure.  Elizabeth was a bastard child of Anne Boleyn (a name that wasn’t even allowed to be uttered in that time – making it as equally shocking as screaming “vil bastarda”) and according to Mary’s Catholic faith, Elizabeth absolutely was soiling the throne of England.  They were both absolutely RIGHT.   There is nothing petty or artificial about this exchange – they are both, as dutiful and brilliant Queens, defending their country’s honor, their thrones, their womanhood, their dignity.

Photo © Ken Howard

Photo © Ken Howard

Does Mary seal her fate at that very point, at the end of the famous confrontation? No, because it still takes Elizabeth another 10 years to make the fateful pronouncement. This is not a knee-jerk reaction on Elizabeth’s part. As in history, she was tormented by the dire situation and knew there was no winning strategy available to her.  The death sentence is not merely because she has been insulted. (In the opera, the tenor contributes strongly to the drama, for Elizabeth’s jealousy is enlarged and becomes her handicap.)  But Mary’s outcome was probably set in motion the moment she was captured.

10 years have passed, and they have passed in agony slowly, excruciatingly, and solitarily.  The cold, damp chambers have taken a tremendous toll on Mary and we see her at the top of the 2nd part as dark, dreary, shaking and frail, for bitterness has settled acutely into her bones and defiant anger has become her friend. The euphoria she felt after unleashing her righteous fury on Elizabeth has long since faded away, and she is haunted by her past and her impending sentence.  When faced with death, it is the unknown that is unbearable ~ when will it happen? how much longer do I have? how will it happen?  Mary is broken. I think when the death sentence finally arrives, it must have come as a kind of relief ~ the waiting was finally at an end.  (I love how she responds to the news in the opera: “So THIS is how England delivers its final judgment on a Queen.”  It’s so deliciously defiant.)

As she is left to face her final hours, it is her salvation that is at stake, and she is faced with her final confession.  I know everyone talks about the confrontation scene, but for me, this is the central heart and soul of the opera.  We see Mary at her most fragile, most broken. She is lost, frightened, far from God, and that bitterness just will not leave her.  It is only through her trusted friend, Talbot’s insistence that she finally opens up and can pour forth her confession ~ which according to her faith will bring her eternal salvation.  This comfort is what finally brings release and in it Mary finds the strength to face her execution.

(It’s a fascinating juxtaposition for me to be on the other side of the prison cell. In Dead Man Walking I was the one trying so desperately to save the soul of Joseph Derocher, and the agony of that scene from the side of the confessor destroyed me every time.  This time I am playing the one in need of purging my soul, and the release of finally saying “Yes, I am guilty” washes over me in a flood in this production.  Every time it is different, and every time I am deeply moved.)

Photo © Ken Howard

Photo © Ken Howard

What can be said about the final 20 minutes of this opera? What astonishes me in every performance is how quickly it all goes by! It is like being shot out of a canon and there is no slowing down or adjusting along the way. It feels as if Donizetti enters a completely different zone from the chorus before the prayer onwards, and we seem to be thrust into a kind of through-composed drama that gathers speed more and more until the final canon shot is heard, and she scales the steps to her execution.

Photo © Ken Howard

Photo © Ken Howard

At this moment, all of Mary’s focus becomes on helping the people around her: the faithful staff who have stood by her, her people who have fought for her, the poor tenor who comes in one last time, wrought with guilt ~ she has made piece with her fate, yet she must help the others find their way to acceptance.  She becomes the comforter, and yet it is her hour of death.  (Again, this is such an Italian/Catholic way to present a martyr to the public!)

I’ve never enacted a scene quite like these final 20 minutes of Maria Stuarda before and it has been a tremendous challenge. It requires an astonishing amount of vocal, physical, and emotional stamina, and yet with every performance it plays out completely differently.  But what I DO feel as I walk her journey each time, is that she is ready for her death. She has finally found her peace.  She is certainly terrified (and considering how her execution played out, she absolutely had reason to be) and yet she manages to find a deep reservoir of determination and fortitude that enables her to climb to her death.

I am so happy to be sharing this journey with so many people across the world (courtesy of the Met’s incredible Live in HD commitment) and to have brought this character to life at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in its history is an incredible privilege.  She is a role that has been inhabited by the best of the best ~ each star singer bringing a completely different set of strengths to her treacherous phrases and her powerful, dramatic journey, bringing a different temperament to a confounding historical figure. To have had the chance to put my stamp on her with such a supportive team will, I’m certain, always remain a career highlight for me.

Mary Queen of Scots has left an undeniable legacy to the legions of her beloved followers, yet she has also alienated many that have never bought into her elevated status and the sometimes distorted history. Donizetti certainly took liberties with her, as has every singer to sing her phrases.  My joy in this role is to highlight the emotional journey of longing, faith, fear, guilt, love, and eventual surrender in order to let the audience define Mary through their own eyes.

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