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Donizetti's Maria Stuarda this week on The Lyric Stage.

Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart square off in Donizetti's version of Schiller's play.

Mary Stuart and the first Queen Elizabeth never met in real life, but Schiller and then Donizetti ignored that detail, and it led to one of opera's classic confrontation scenes. It also led to a classic Marx Brothers moment at a rehearsal of an early performance of the opera, as described by Harold Rosenthal:

"Ronzi De Begnis was to sing Queen Elizabeth (soprano) and Anna Del Serre the mezzo-soprano title-role. At one of the rehearsals an incident occurred [which Donizetti expert, William Ashbrook describes as 'one of the famous scandals of the day']. In the second act of the opera, Mary Stuart rounds on Queen Elizabeth with these words:

Figlia impura di Bolena, / parli tu di disonore? / Meretrice indegna e oscena, / in te cada il mio rossore. / Profanato è il soglio inglese, / vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!

[Translated as: "Impure daughter of Boleyn, do you speak of dishonour? Prostitute — unworthy and obscene, I blush for you. The throne of England is sullied by your feet, vile bastard!"]

At the rehearsal, Anna Del Serre declaimed these lines with such passion, that Ronzi Di Begnis took them as a personal insult and rushed at Del Serre, pulling her hair, punching her, biting her and hitting her on her face and breast. Del Serre returned in kind, but the soprano got the better of her rival, and Del Serre was carried fainting from the theatre."

As far as is known, no such misunderstanding occurred during the recording of this week's performance. Sung in English, it features Dame Janet Baker as Maria and Rosaland Plowright as Elizabeth. Sir Charles Mackerras conducts the English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra.