In real life, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England, never met. Only on stage and screen do we see dramatic stand-offs between these two cousins and rival monarchs, be it in Friedrich Schiller’s play of 1800, Donizetti’s subsequent opera setting of it from 1838 or any of the numerous film and television adaptations. It’s understandable; it makes for a great climactic moment, full of tension and expectation.
In this dramatic “scena” Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn are aiming for a sense of historical authenticity through a libretto which allows both queens to tell their own version of events using the royal protagonists’ original words, assembled from countless letters, documents and speeches.
The song cycle “In spe contra spem” for two sopranos and orchestra is a concertante extract from a planned opera, a pivotal scene in which a confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth indeed takes place, although not necessarily in the same physical space. It assumes the form of contrasting and competing viewpoints, firstly alternating between them, later increasingly interwoven. The melding of the two soprano voices with orchestra reveals not only points of vehement disagreement and disavowal but also aspects of sympathy and consolation.
For Elizabeth, the burdensome decision of whether or not to sign Mary’s death warrant is depicted through much hand-wringing, despair and heartfelt “if only” hypotheticals. For Mary, despite the sorrow and humiliation of her long imprisonment, there is a growing acceptance of death, accompanied by the solace of her faith in Christ’s unending love.
Brett Dean & Matthew Jocelyn, 2022