“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 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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.