ANNA BOLENA – Gaetano Donizetti

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.