In the early 19th century, England and Scotland were distant enough from operatic Italy to warrant them being seen as suitable locations for Romantic opera. Thanks to Scott's novels, historical Scotland was seen as a suitably exotic backdrop. Of course, these operas were no more historically accurate than any other location; Rossini's La Donna del Lago was no more Scottish than his Maometto secondo represents a real episode in Turkish/Venetian history.
The Romantic movement was very interested in the exotic other and this crops up in many ways in many operas. The other can be a foreigner in our land Il Turco in Italia or one of us visiting a foreign land L'Italiana in Algeri. Historical setting was, of course, de rigeur. But whereas in the 18th century Opera Seria, the historical setting was very much irrelevant, during the 19th century this came to reflect local colour. Rossini's La Donna del Lago is very important in this respect as it pre-figures in its Romantic view of Scotland, much that Rossini's succesors Bellini and Donizetti, would come to do. You only have to comapare La Donna del Lago to Semiramide. In the latter, Rossini pretty much ignores the historical background and location, his treatment of the story is in direct line to the earlier Opera Seria, whereas in La Donna del Lago Rossini goes to some trouble to evoke the lake-side setting. This is taken to the ultimate extreme in his
last opera Guillaume Tell with its stunning re-creation of the historical Switzerland, the Alps and the lake.
Historical England also came in for re-incarnation: Rossini's Elizabetta Regina d'Inghilterra bears very little resemblance to her historical counterpart, but is notable because her opening aria is the pre-cursor for Rosina's opening aria - a fascinating example of Rossini's re-use of material.
But it is in the operas of Donizetti that we come across a large number of English and Scottish settings. Whilst we have difficulty taking the exotic location of Emilia di Liverpool seriously, we can be more sympathetic to the historicism in Rosamunda d'Inghilterra which concerns the antics of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry's mistress the Fair Rosamund. But where Donizetti really seems to score is in his sequence of operas based on the Tudor dynasty.
These start with Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth and continue with Anna Bolena, Donizetti's first big hit, then Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda. English Opera companies seem to have a fascination with Maria Stuarda above all the rest. It is, of course, a superb opera but not significantly better than some of Donizetti's other ones. Perhaps our fascination with the historical Mary Stuart has something to do with it, and Schiller's invented scene between the 2 queens is quite superb. But the role of Elizabeth is rather short, the original Elisabetta complained about the paucity of this role. Usually in UK performances this role is given to a soprano strong on Character (Pauline Tinsley, Rosalind Plowright) who can make much of the character's appearances in the opera.
Though ENO has done very little early Italian opera in recent years they have done 2 productions of Maria Stuarda, one for Janet Baker and one for Anne Murray. The opera was performed at Grange Park in recent years with Majella Cullagh in the title role and English Touring Opera toured it last year. So it was with some surprise that I learned that Chelsea Opera Group were planning the opera. But on reflection, the last ENO production was some years ago and the promised revivals have never come so apart from ETO in Hackney last year, Maria Stuarda has been pretty absent from the capital.
Chelsea Opera Group have a strong cast, headed by Majella Cullagh. This will be COG's last appearance at Cadogan Hall, for their next appearance in March 2008 they are back in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, when Nelly Miricioiu will be singing Lady Macbeth in the original version of Verdi's opera.