Mary Stuart, a Catholic and heiress to the Scottish throne, was a tragic figure in the violent religious struggles that ensued after the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne after her father Henry VIII's death. Actual historical events thus provided a superb operatic opportunity. As Donizetti's opera "Maria Stuarda" begins, Mary is already imprisoned at Fotheringay Castle. Queen Elizabeth contemplates marriage with the King of France in order to avert a threatened alliance between Scotland and France, but she is torn between her duty to England and her love for the Earl of Leicester. Leicester, who adores Mary and wishes to secure her freedom, pleads with Elizabeth for Mary's life and gives her a letter from Mary, in which she requests a meeting. Elizabeth surmises that Mary, having failed to secure the English crown, seeks to deprive her of Leicester. Elizabeth and Mary meet and a violent quarrel ensues in which they trade insults. Elizabeth vows to have Mary executed. Encouraged by William Cecil, Elizabeth ignores Leicester's pleading and signs the death warrant. The opera ends as Mary walks to her execution.
The opera's composition and productions seemed to be jinxed: Donizetti hired the amateur poet Giuseppe Bardari because his regular librettist refused the task; the King of Naples attended the 1834 dress rehearsal and banned the opera because it was too tragic. Donizetti transformed "Maria Stuarda" into "Buondelmonte" (set in Italy), which failed. "Maria Stuarda" was presented in Milan in 1835, but after seven performances the censors suddenly demanded changes. The opera was abandoned for 123 years, when 1958 and 1963 performances were marred by cast illnesses. A 1966 London performance was finally triumphant.
The Naxos 2-CD set is attractively priced and the cast is a strong one, though Maria Polverelli (Elizabeth) faces stiff competition from Dame Janet Baker (Chandos), Dame Joan Sutherland (Decca), and Beverly Sills (Decca or Brilliant). All are still available, so it may come down to your personal choice of which cast you prefer.