ANNA BOLENA – Gaetano Donizetti

anna bolena-callas

Suc­cess, tri­umph, delir­ium; it seemed that the pub­lic had gone mad. Every­one says they can­not remem­ber ever hav­ing been present at such a tri­umph,” wrote com­poser Gae­tano Donizetti to his wife after the first per­for­mance of Anna Bolena on Decem­ber 26, 1830. It was a sweet tri­umph, indeed – dou­bly so since it took place in Milan.

Donizetti had been writ­ing operas since 1818 and enjoyed con­sid­er­able suc­cess else­where in Italy, espe­cially in Naples. But the Milanese remained stub­bornly aloof.  His 1822 opera Chiara e Ser­a­fina had been writ­ten for La Scala, but it was received indif­fer­ently, with no fur­ther inter­est from the­aters in Milan until the fall of 1830 when a group of aris­to­crats, fed up with the way La Scala was being run, decided to put on a rival sea­son in Milan’s Teatro Carcano.


They offered Donizetti a con­tract to write the opera that would open the Car­ni­val sea­son (an enor­mous honor), for the great soprano Giu­ditta Pasta and equally famous tenor Gio­vanni Bat­tista Rubini, with a libretto by the well-known Felice Romani.  Donizetti signed. Since the opera had to open on Saint Stephen’s Day (Decem­ber 26th), the libretto was due the end of Sep­tem­ber. Romani, as usual, missed his dead­line, and the com­poser did not have the com­pleted text until Novem­ber 10th. It was well worth wait­ing for. The two men had worked together twice before, includ­ing on the ill-fated Chiara e Ser­a­fina, but the libretto to Anna Bolena was the best Donizetti had had to that point in his career. It was based on two plays: an Ital­ian trans­la­tion by Ippolito Pin­de­monte of Marie-Joseph de Chénier’s Henry VIII (Paris, 1791) and Alessan­dro Pepoli’s Anna Bolena (Venice, 1788).

Romani’s drama focuses atten­tion squarely on the inno­cent Anna Bolena and the suf­fer­ing she endures while await­ing her tragic fate, a fate she shares with the man she truly loves, Henry Percy, even though she has been faith­ful to her hus­band, King Henry VIII (Enrico in the opera). The char­ac­ters are all sharply etched, and they are brought together in sit­u­a­tions that fur­ther the drama while reveal­ing new aspects of the peo­ple involved. The libretto is not good his­tory, but it is mar­velous drama, and Donizetti turned it into a sen­sa­tional opera.

The his­toric Anne Boleyn

The Anne Boleyn who became Henry VIII’s sec­ond wife was not the beloved, long-suffering queen of the opera. As a young teenager she and her older sis­ter Mary were sent to France where they were part of the court of King Fran­cis I. “The court fol­lowed the lead of the King in mak­ing a man­nerly art of adul­tery,” wrote one his­to­rian. “The clergy adjusted them­selves after mak­ing the req­ui­site objec­tions. The peo­ple made no objec­tions, but grate­fully imi­tated the easy code of the court.”  Cen­turies later Vic­tor Hugo wrote a play about Fran­cis I’s licen­tious court, Le roi s’amuse. It was banned after one per­for­mance, but became the basis of Verdi’s Rigo­letto—after numer­ous changes to sat­isfy the cen­sor.  One can only won­der at the effect of such behav­ior on the psy­che of the young teenage Anne Boleyn, espe­cially after her sis­ter Mary became the French king’s mis­tress, (and later became the mis­tress to King Henry VIII).

Anne’s sis­ter Mary

The Anne who returned to Eng­land in 1522 was described by the Venet­ian ambas­sador as “not the hand­somest woman in the world. She is of mid­dle height, dark-skinned, long neck, wide mouth, rather flat-chested.” But she was viva­cious, quick tem­pered, witty, out-spoken, and knew how to make the most of her flash­ing dark eyes, long hair, and grace­ful neck. Thanks to her train­ing at the French court, and her own ambi­tion, she soon attracted seri­ous male atten­tion, includ­ing Henry Percy, son of the earl of Northum­ber­land, who was already betrothed. In the opera Percy claims he and Anna were mar­ried — or at least promised to each other in the sight of God — before she ever mar­ried the king, and Anna does not deny it. Whether or not this is his­tor­i­cally accu­rate is open to debate. What is known is that young Henry Percy was hus­tled away from court on order of King Henry, and that Percy’s wife (who loathed him) later claimed it was true. The inquiry seek­ing evi­dence of Anne’s adul­tery on behalf of the king could not ver­ify the per­sisted rumors about the Queen and Percy so (unlike his fate in the opera) he was never brought to trial and his life was spared.

Ini­tially Anne played her cards right with Henry VIII. She refused to become his mis­tress, and the more she resisted his advances, the more besot­ted the King became. “This pas­sion is the most extra­or­di­nary thing,” wrote the Papal legate in Feb­ru­ary 1529. “He sees noth­ing, he thinks of noth­ing, but his Anne; he can­not be with­out her for an hour.” What is never men­tioned in the opera is the biggest plum Anne could offer Henry — the pos­si­bil­ity of a son, an heir to the throne and polit­i­cal sta­bil­ity for the Tudor line at a time when many Eng­lish­men still remem­bered the dev­as­tat­ing effects of the War of the Roses. Henry’s wife, Queen Cather­ine, had not pro­vided son who sur­vived, and she was past child-bearing. Henry decided Anne could give him an heir and deter­mined to make her his queen, set­ting off a series of inter­na­tional crises before he succeeded.

Henry VIII by Hans Hobein the Younger (ca. 1537)

By the time they were mar­ried Anne was preg­nant, but the child was a girl, Eliz­a­beth, later to become one of England’s most illus­tri­ous mon­archs, and a key fig­ure in Donizetti’s operas Maria Stu­arda (1835) and Roberto Dev­ereux (1837). Later preg­nan­cies ended in mis­car­riages. Anne’s charms began to wear thin, and her lack of friends at court did not help when Henry — ever on the quest for a male heir — decided one of Anne’s ladies in wait­ing, Jane Sey­mour, would be the wife he needed. Henry seized on rumors of Anne’s indis­crete behav­ior and had her charged with mul­ti­ple counts of adul­tery (includ­ing incest with her own brother) and trea­son. The only per­son who con­fessed to the behav­ior was a court musi­cian, Mark Sme­ton, who was pos­si­bly tor­tured. (In the opera he is tricked into con­fess­ing, believ­ing it will save Anna’s life.) The his­toric Anne Boleyn did not go mad and did not die as the peo­ple cheered the mar­riage between Henry and Jane Sey­mour. (It actu­ally took place 11 days later.) One his­to­rian summed it up: “No one could be sure of her guilt, but few regret­ted her fall.”

But fab­ri­cat­ing his­tory, as Romani’s libretto did, gave Donizetti the oppor­tu­nity to write music that took Ital­ian opera to a new level. For the first time Donizetti found his own, per­sonal voice as a com­poser of Roman­tic tragedy, pri­mar­ily by bend­ing the tra­di­tional forms of Ital­ian opera to cre­ate tighter and more emo­tion­ally grip­ping drama. For instance, in the open­ing scene of the opera Anna inter­rupts Smeton’s aria before it is fin­ished, giv­ing a sense of urgency to the drama. In the famous duet between Anna and Gio­vanna (Jane Sey­mour) in Act II, the two women do not sing together until the very end of the num­ber. Until then the rev­e­la­tion that Gio­vanna is Anna’s rival, and Anna’s reac­tion to it, are all han­dled more con­ver­sa­tion­ally, as they would be in a play, but greatly inten­si­fied by Donizetti’s music.

Giudetta Pasta, the first Anna Bolena.

Though the score is rich in ensem­bles, and the numer­ous cho­ruses are used bril­liantly to pro­vide atmos­phere — espe­cially the women’s cho­ruses in Act II — Donizetti gave his singers ample oppor­tu­nity to make a tremen­dous impact on the audi­ence quite apart from their for­mal arias. In Anna Bolena Donizetti became a mas­ter of writ­ing what might be called “momen­tary music,” music that is not a tra­di­tional aria, but that so vividly expresses the character’s emo­tion that skill­ful singers can use it to elec­trify an audi­ence. The part of Anna has so many of these moments that one won­ders what influ­ence Giu­ditta Pasta might have had on the score, since Donizetti wrote the opera while her houseguest.

One exam­ple is in the finale of Act I, when the king tells Anna to save her story for the judges who will hear her evi­dence. “Judges! For Anna!” the thun­der­struck queen replies. “For Anna! Judges!” The soprano’s words are punc­tu­ated by forte chords in the orches­tra that leave most of her words unac­com­pa­nied, con­vey­ing the fact that at that moment she is all on her own — and allow­ing the soprano the oppor­tu­nity to put her indi­vid­ual imprint on Anna’s sud­den aware­ness that she is doomed – before she sweeps into the rous­ing stretta of the finale with its jagged vocal line (marked “des­per­ately” in the score), with the words “Ah, my fate is sealed.”

Another exam­ple occurs in the next scene, the open­ing of Act II. Donizetti wrote a very sim­ple prayer for Anna, “God, Who sees into my heart…” It’s not a for­mal aria, just 16 mea­sures long, a brief, unvar­nished look into Anna’s soul. But a great soprano can bring tears to the eyes of an audi­ence by the way she molds its sim­ple vocal line.

All the major singers have their moment in the sun. Smeton’s arias are charm­ing, and Percy’s Act II aria “Vivi tu” has been a favorite of almost any tenor who can sing it.  Still, it is a remark­able feat on Donizetti’s part to write the role of Enrico in such a way that it would attract some of the great­est basses of the time, even though the king has no aria. The Ital­ian writer and states­man Giuseppe Mazz­ini com­mented, “Who has not heard in the musi­cal expres­sion of Henry VIII the stern lan­guage, at once tyran­ni­cal and art­ful, that his­tory assigned him? Anna Bolena is the sort of opera that approaches the musi­cal epic.”

Joan Suther­land as Anna Bolena

Its crown jewel, of course, is Anna’s justly famous mad scene. Donizetti’s genius was to com­bine its indi­vid­ual ele­ments — Anna’s arias, bits of recita­tive, melodic frag­ments — with just the right amount of cho­rus, com­ments from other char­ac­ters and superb use of the orches­tra (both indi­vid­ual instru­ments like the Eng­lish horn, and as a whole) to cre­ate a final scene that greater than the sum of its parts, that is strong enough to be the dra­mat­i­cally sat­is­fy­ing, emo­tion­ally cathar­tic cli­max to the entire opera. Giu­ditta Pasta was just the first in a long line of great singing actresses who rev­eled in first wring­ing dry the souls of her audi­ence with her poignant aria “Al dolce guidami,” keep­ing them on the edges of their seats with “Cielo, a’miei lunghi spasimi,” then finally whip­ping them into hys­te­ria with the daz­zling, and fiendishly dif­fi­cult, vocal line of “Cop­pia ini­qua.” Donizetti went on to write a num­ber of famous mad scenes, but he never wrote one that was better.

No won­der Anna Bolena was the opera that intro­duced his name to Paris and Lon­don, that set him securely on that path to inter­na­tional fame, and that whet­ted the opera audience’s taste for Roman­tic tragedy for decades to come.


A very slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, Sep­tem­ber 2011.