The grisly end of Mary Stuart - Mary, Queen of Scots - held a particular fascination for the 19th-century Italian public. Executed for treason over 200 years before, the Roman Catholic monarch had become a potent symbol to radicals there, personifying the persecution they saw Scotland endure at the hands of the Protestant English crown, a parallel with their own situation as part of the Austrian empire.
This found its expression in popular entertainment. Gaetano Donizetti's opera, Maria Stuarda, based on the play by the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller, was by no means the only version. Saverio Mercadante, less well-known now, but at the time as highly regarded as Donizetti, and Rossini too, premiered a version ten years before Donizetti's made it to the stage. Its journey there is worthy of an opera in itself.
Donizetti was working for the San Carlo opera house in Naples, Europe's oldest, a thriving centre of excellence.
The composer had already made his mark with a musical drama based on Anne Boleyn, the second wife of England's King Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn was the mother of Elizabeth, Queen of England, who imprisoned Mary Stuart and ultimately sent her to the scaffold.
Anne Boleyn was herself executed, having been found guilty of adultery, a verdict that led to the annulment of her marriage to Henry VIII, and rendered Elizabeth illegitimate.
Donizetti's collaborator on Anna Bolena, as the work was called, had been Felice Romani, one of the most sought-after librettists of the time, who had worked on numerous projects with Rossini (Il turco in Italia, for example) and Bellini (Norma). He had been alongside Donizetti for L'elisir d'amore and Lucrezia Borgia as well.
But despite being offered twice his usual fee, Romani showed no enthusiasm for Donizetti's latest venture for the stage in Naples. It seems odd that the composer's next move was to engage a 17-year-old student in the city, who had been making a bit of a name for himself writing poetry, but had absolutely no experience with operatic text.
What the young Giuseppe Bardari came up with, in what would turn out to be his one and only effort, certainly wasn't lacking in drama. Taking his lead from a scene invented by the playwright Schiller, he ratchets up the tension between the two queens, delivering a high-octane confrontation.
The fact that this opera had two leading ladies, two prima donnas, created a volatile mix - two top sopranos of the time giving it all they had. Donizetti reported constant back-biting between them.
It all boiled over during one run-through of the confrontation scene. Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, singing the part of Mary Stuart, in reacting to the insults of Elizabeth Tudor, played by Anna Delserre, came across as a little too personal as she sang the lines describing the English Queen as the "vil bastarda", the illegitimate daughter of Anne Boleyn.
La Delserre launched herself at La Ronzi, pulling her hair and thumping her. Ronzi fell to the floor. When she picked herself up and went on the attack, Delserre fainted, and that was the end of the rehearsal - and the start of the problems.
Maria Stuarda only got as far as its dress rehearsal before it was banned. It seems it was deemed too violent.
With the première just six weeks away and no show to put on, Donizetti grabbed another text, and cobbled together music to fit from the Maria Stuarda score. An opera with the title Buondelmonte, on the less controversial subject of aristocratic families at odds in medieval Florence, was staged instead. Unsurprisingly, it bombed, and was withdrawn after only one performance.
Donizetti refused to give up on Maria Stuarda. Within a year, he had found a venue, and it had its premiere in December 1835, far from the strictures of Naples, at La Scala in Milan.