In the spring of 1834 Donizetti was approached by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples to produce a new opera. Donizetti had traversed subjects from English history prior to this point, most notably in Anna Bolena of 1830 and Il Castello di Kenilworth in 1829. He was to return again, of course, in Roberto Devereux in 1837. Having seen Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart in Italian translation in Milan he was predisposed to tackle the subject, not only because of its historical atmospherics but because of the inherent drama enveloping the central action of the confrontation between Elizabeth I and her Scottish cousin, Mary Stuart. (There is no evidence that such a meeting ever actually occurred.)
The composer had hoped for a libretto from Felice Romani, but Romani’s lack of response left him to turn to the young (17 years old!) untried poet, Giuseppe Bardari who is credited with nothing further in the Italian operatic oeuvre. (He later became a judge and the Prefect of Police in Naples. One assumes that his legal responsibilities made it impossible to work with another composer, or even Donizetti, again!) Rehearsals for the opera began in Naples during the month of September, Donizetti having spent the summer composing and orchestrating the score. But, as often happened in these times, the royal censors of the King of Naples took umbrage with the central confrontation in which Mary spits out at Elizabeth, “vil bastarda!” It certainly didn’t help that Queen Maria Cristina was an actual descendant of the Queen of Scots. The opera was banned from Naples after the dress rehearsal.
[An interesting confrontation took place between the two leading ladies during one of the rehearsals. 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! Poor del Serre was carried off in a faint.]
In order to salvage the rehearsal time as well as the work itself, Maria Stuarda quickly became Buondelmonte, a tale of fifteenth century Florence, and the revised piece opened on October 18, 1834. Donizetti was not happy with the forced revisions and, determined to bring Maria Stuarda to permanent life, remounted it for the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in December, 1835. The superstar Maria Malibran took the title role and incited a scandal by ignoring edits demanded by the Milanese censors (again, “vil bastarda”!) until finally, after six performances, the opera was removed from production. The opera virtually disappeared from the repertoire [after its return to Naples in 1865 as Maria Stuarda rather than Buondelmonte] until 1958 when it was revived by conductor Oliviero de Fabritiis at the Teatro Donizetti in Bergamo, Italy. The career of American soprano Beverly Sills went a long way in establishing the opera as one of Donizetti’s true gems, invigorating New York Opera fans to wait with great anticipation of her singing any of the composer’s three ‘Queen’ operas: Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux and Anna Bolena.