Donizetti, G.

Gaetano Donizetti  — LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR



On August 24, 1669, a young Scot­tish lass named Janet Dal­rym­ple mar­ried David Dun­bar of Bal­doon. Her father was the promi­nent James Dal­rym­ple, the first Vis­count Stair. Her moth­er was described by some as “a shrew.” Janet was mar­ry­ing at her family’s insis­tence, much against her will, since she had been secret­ly engaged to anoth­er man of her own choos­ing, Lord Ruther­ford, but had been forced to renounce him.

On the wed­ding night the bride­groom was dis­cov­ered — severe­ly wound­ed — in the bridal cham­ber, as his new wife raved near­by, insane. The bride died a few weeks lat­er on Sep­tem­ber 12.  The groom recov­ered from his injuries but nev­er after­ward spoke of what had hap­pened that fate­ful day.

Carscreugh Cas­tle, Janet Dal­rym­ple’s home

Such events, quite nat­u­ral­ly, became the fod­der of numer­ous sto­ries through­out Scot­land and Eng­land, and it was Sir Wal­ter Scott (1771 – 1832) who turned them into a huge­ly suc­cess­ful nov­el, The Bride of Lam­mer­moor, in 1819.  Scott claimed to have the sto­ry from two dif­fer­ent but com­pli­men­ta­ry sources, one of which was his great-aunt Mar­garet Swin­ton. As a young girl, she had known Janet Dalrymple’s broth­er, who had told her that on the way to the wed­ding cer­e­mo­ny his sister’s hand felt “moist, and cold as a statue.”

Gae­tano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) took Scott’s nov­el and turned it into an opera that, at the time of its pre­mier, seemed the very pin­na­cle of Roman­tic sen­si­bil­i­ty.  Since Lucia di Lam­mer­moor pre­miered in Naples in 1835 it has nev­er been out of reper­toire, no mat­ter what new fads and fash­ions have swept the oper­at­ic world. For much of the Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry is sim­ply was opera, and came to typ­i­fy much more than a musi­cal form (as Flaubert showed in Madame Bovary.)

There are sev­er­al good rea­sons why Lucia has remained such a vibrant pres­ence on the stage, while many of its oper­at­ic sib­lings of the bel can­to era have either dis­ap­peared for good, or dropped out of view for long peri­ods of time, before being redis­cov­ered in the 1950s and ’60s.

Donizetti had achieved inter­na­tion­al atten­tion in 1830 with the pre­mier of Anna Bole­na. He was only 33 years old, but Anna Bole­na was already his thir­ti­eth opera. (Lucia was his forty-sixth.) Donizetti had always been a gift­ed melodist, but from Bole­na on he gained a new facil­i­ty for con­vey­ing the emo­tion of the char­ac­ters through his tunes. The aston­ish pow­er of Donizetti’s melodies could not be denied — even by oth­er com­posers who often sneered at Ital­ian opera.

Richard Wagner’s wife, Cosi­ma, record­ed in her diary for Novem­ber 30, 1881, “When sup­per was fin­ished, R[ichard] got up and played Ital­ian melodies (Lucia), say­ing this music, in free­ing  itself from Rossini’s ornate style, enabled the heart to speak, and it was all suf­fer­ing and lament.”

In Lucia Donizetti added the orches­tra to that “suf­fer­ing and lament” of his melod­ic gift, to give an opera its own tin­ta—hue or tone — that con­veys the unique qual­i­ty of the sto­ry though the music’s col­or. Rossi­ni had pio­neered in Ital­ian opera using instru­ments in the orches­tra for their col­or (to such an extent his detrac­tors derid­ed him as “un tedesco,” a Ger­man). Donizetti took this a step fur­ther with Lucia and used it, not for its own sake, or to tit­il­late the ears of his audi­ence, but as anoth­er way to con­vey the dra­ma of a scene and the shift­ing emo­tions of his characters.

Today we lis­ten to Lucia with ears that are used to the sounds of Wagner’s orches­tra, the daz­zling instru­men­ta­tion of scores by Richard Strauss, Rav­el and Debussy. When we go to the movies or watch tele­vi­sion, we’re accus­tomed to the sound­track clu­ing us in to shifts in the sto­ry. But Donizetti’s audi­ence knew none of these sounds. For them, Lucia di Lam­mer­moor was non-stop sen­so­ry overload.

From the first omi­nous taps of the tym­pa­ni in the pre­lude, fol­lowed by the brood­ing quar­tet of horns, we intu­itive­ly under­stand this is a trag­ic tale. And Donizetti’s lis­ten­ers would prob­a­bly have been amazed at his fol­low­ing the horns’ open­ing phras­es with bas­soons, then clar­inets, fol­lowed by oboes, and not using any of the orchestra’s strings until the entire orches­tra breaks into a giant for­tis­si­mo in the mid­dle of the prelude.

Giuseppe di Ste­fano’s Edgar­do was extraordinary

Repeat­ed­ly through­out the opera, Donizetti com­bines the unique tim­bre of the orches­tral instru­ments with the singer’s vocal line in such a way that his audi­ence can­not help feel­ing the emo­tions of the char­ac­ter on stage. For instance, after Edgar­do stabs him­self in the final scene, rather than fol­low­ing oper­at­ic con­ven­tion, and hav­ing the tenor sing the final verse of his aria before final­ly expir­ing, Donizetti brought a new lev­el of real­i­ty to the dra­ma. It’s not the tenor who begins the reprise of his aria, but the cel­los in the orches­tra. Over their weep­ing melody, the dying tenor has only gasp­ing, iso­lat­ed phras­es — which must have sent chills down the backs of his audi­ence.  Only after 17 mea­sures does the tenor again begin to sing his aria’s melody.

Rou­tine per­for­mances of operas by Donizetti and his fel­low bel can­to com­posers Rossi­ni and Belli­ni, can give the (very false) impres­sion there is noth­ing to them but a few pleas­ant tunes and an occa­sion­al oppor­tu­ni­ty for emp­ty vocal dis­play. In fact, these operas offer singers a unique chance to move audi­ences deeply through their abil­i­ty to con­vey myr­i­ad emo­tion­al col­ors dur­ing any giv­en scene.

Above all, bel can­to is expres­sion,” declared Maria Callas, her­self a great Lucia. “A beau­ti­ful sound is not enough. It is a method of singing, a sort of straight­jack­et you must put on. You learn how to approach a note, how to attack it, how to form a lega­to, how to cre­ate a mood. How to breathe so that there is a feel­ing of only a begin­ning and end­ing. It must seem as if you have tak­en only one big breath, though in actu­al­i­ty there will be many phras­es with many lit­tle breaths.”

Callas, Tul­lio Ser­afin and Fer­ruc­cio Tagli­avi­ni record­ing “Lucia”

It was the great con­duc­tor Tulio Ser­afin who taught her “There must be expres­sion to every­thing you do, a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. I learned that every embell­ish­ment must be put to the ser­vice of music, and that if you real­ly care for the com­pos­er, and not just for your own per­son­al suc­cess, you will always find the mean­ing of a trill or a scale that will jus­ti­fy a feel­ing of hap­pi­ness, anx­i­ety, sad­ness. Mae­stro Ser­afin taught me, in short, the depth of music.”

In work­ing with a young sopra­no on Lucia’s Act I aria, “Reg­na­va nel silen­zio,” dur­ing her mas­ter class­es at the Juil­liard School, Callas point­ed out, “You must make the pub­lic feel that Lucia is ill from the begin­ning, so this aria is the key to the dra­ma that fol­lows. It shows the unset­tled mind that lat­er leads Lucia to mur­der her husband.”

A great singer will not approach a caden­za as just an oppor­tu­ni­ty for mere vocal aggran­dize­ment, rather it’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to strength­en a par­tic­u­lar emo­tion, or point of the dra­ma, in the minds of the audi­ence. “Remem­ber your caden­za should reflect the words that Lucia has just sung — ‘The waters so limpid turned crim­son as blood’ — so there is no room for any­thing cute, or for a dis­play of fire­works,” Callas instructed.

Joan Suther­land’s first Lucia made her world famous.

The part of Lucia, of course, cli­max­es with her famous Mad Scene. Mad scenes were noth­ing new to opera. Peo­ple who behave in unusu­al and extrav­a­gant ways are the stuff of which dra­ma — whether spo­ken or sung — is made. By pre­sent­ing a char­ac­ter that is insane, com­posers and drama­tists are free to present a vast kalei­do­scope of behav­iors with­in a very lim­it­ed amount of time. And it is not only nine­teenth cen­tu­ry com­posers who eager­ly seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty to write mad scenes for their lead­ing characters.

In Peter Grimes (1945) Ben­jamin Brit­ten wrote an intense­ly grip­ping mad scene for tenor, accom­pa­nied only by foghorns and the off­stage cho­rus repeat­ing the name “Peter Grimes.”  Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, writ­ten in the 1920s, has a mad scene for not only the sopra­no, Rena­ta, but her fel­low nuns as well.

The fact that Donizetti’s Mad Scene for Lucia is like­ly to strike us today as “pret­ty,” rather than the more “nat­ur­al” rav­ings of Britten’s Grimes or Prokofiev’s Rena­ta, does not mean it is any less dra­mat­i­cal­ly viable. Lucia is insane, but that does not inval­i­date her emo­tions. Lucia gen­uine­ly feels each moment of ter­ror, each moment of hope, of ecsta­sy, of despair — no mat­ter how brief or how unmo­ti­vat­ed it might be to the watch­ing wed­ding guests.

Luisa Tetrazz­ini’s Lucia drove audi­ences into a frenzy.

To help the sopra­no con­vey this aston­ish­ing, almost non-stop cas­cade of shift­ing emo­tions, Donizetti pulled out all the stops musi­cal­ly. He care­ful­ly con­struct­ing the scene so that at the begin­ning Lucia moves in and out of real­i­ty, but by the end, she has become total­ly dement­ed. Though the com­pos­er write out a num­ber of vocal embell­ish­ments, he left some of the caden­zas to the indi­vid­ual sopra­no, only indi­cat­ing in the score the har­mon­ic scheme he want­ed a singer to use. (Our con­tem­po­rary idea that an artist may only sing the notes print­ed in the score and those “come scrit­to” — as writ­ten — would have struck Donizetti and his singers as…well, insane.)

Accord­ing to some crit­ics in the 1830s, the first Lucia, Fan­ny Per­siani, often changed her embell­ish­ments from per­for­mance to per­for­mance, depend­ing on her mood and the state of her voice on any giv­en evening.  Since at least the days of Han­del, singers had been trained to com­pose their own embell­ish­ments to suit any dra­mat­ic sit­u­a­tion, and they were also trained to embell­ish spon­ta­neous­ly dur­ing per­for­mances — much as a great jazz musi­cian today will elab­o­rate on a song accord­ing to his mood at the time.  Since so much of Persiani’s per­for­mance was spon­ta­neous, it is unlike­ly she per­formed the lengthy Mad Scene caden­zas with flute — since the flute’s notes have to be set in advance — that we have come to expect today.

(In fact, Donizetti first want­ed to use the glass har­mon­i­ca, Ben­jamin Franklin’s inven­tion, as the obbli­ga­to instru­ment in the Mad Scene, but no suit­able play­er could be found, so he turned to the flute.  Bev­er­ly Sills’s record­ing of Lucia on West­min­ster, con­duct­ed by Thomas Schip­pers, uses glass har­mon­i­ca, and shows Donizetti’s orig­i­nal instincts were cor­rect. The spooky, oth­er­world­ly sound of the instru­ment is a per­fect touch to that part of the opera.)

But regard­less of which embell­ish­ments and caden­zas a sopra­no ulti­mate­ly uses in the Mad Scene, the point is not the vocal acro­bat­ics or the high-wire-cir­cus-act aspect of the daz­zling vocal dis­play — as enjoy­able as those things can be. The point is to use all these dif­fer­ent tools to con­vey the vast panoply of Lucia’s tragedy.

Con­vey­ing all that you have found in a score becomes a sort of drug,” Callas observed. “If you man­age to trans­mit this to the pub­lic, you will have a won­der­ful drunk­en feel­ing which becomes con­ta­gious all around.  But it is also a priv­i­lege. I con­sid­er myself priv­i­leged because I have been able to bring truth from the soul and the mind, give it to the pub­lic, and have it accept­ed. It is one of the great­est pow­ers one can put in the ser­vice of one of the great­est arts — music.” Donizetti would cer­tain­ly have agreed.


Dri­ving Audi­ences Mad — In Odd Ways”

The Mad Scene from Lucia, like many oper­at­ic mad scenes, is such a musi­cal and dra­mat­ic tour de force that it is under­stand­able singers would want to daz­zle audi­ences with it as often as they could.

Mod­ern audi­ences would not be par­tic­u­lar­ly sur­prised to hear Lucia’s Mad Scene in an orches­tral con­cert fea­tur­ing a famous col­oratu­ra sopra­no. But oper­at­ic his­to­ry is sprin­kled with per­for­mances of the Mad Scene in ways that seem decid­ed­ly odd to us today.

The first sea­son the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera gave Puccini’s La Bohème (1900 – 01), the Mimi was sung by Nel­lie Mel­ba, who was not only a famous sopra­no, but a famous pri­ma don­na, as well.  Mel­ba adored the role of Mimi (on more than one occa­sion she said it was her favorite part), but she adored daz­zling her audi­ence with her voice even more. So on sev­er­al occa­sions, after the cur­tain had fall­en on Puccini’s opera, Mel­ba pro­ceed­ed to sing the Mad Scene from Lucia (accom­pa­nied by the Met’s orches­tra) for her ador­ing fans.

Bohème was not the only opera Mel­ba deemed insuf­fi­cient to stand on its own. She also sang the Mad Scene from Lucia after some per­for­mances of Verdi’s Rigo­let­to—one of which fea­tured the great singing actor Vic­tor Mau­rel in the title role. (One can only won­der how Mau­rel, who cre­at­ed the role of Iago in Otel­lo and was Verdi’s first Fal­staff, felt about Melba’s stunt.)

Nel­lie Mel­ba in 1891

Even Wagner’s operas were not immune to such gild­ing. In April 1894, while the Met was on tour in Chica­go, Mel­ba sang Elis­a­beth in Tannhäuser. The tenor, Francesco Vig­nas, was ill, so to spare him (and per­haps the audi­ence) from the ardors of Tannhäuser’s “Rome Nar­ra­tive,” Act III end­ed after Wolfram’s aria “O du mein hold­er Abend­stern.” As the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera’s own data­base puts it: “So the Mad Scene from Lucia was added [with Mel­ba] to fill out the evening.”

But times were very dif­fer­ent a cen­tu­ry ago. For sev­er­al sea­sons the Met occa­sion­al­ly cou­pled the new one-act opera Cav­al­le­ria Rus­ti­cana with per­for­mances of Donizetti’s Lucia (some of which end­ed after the Mad Scene). Sopra­no Mar­cel­la Sem­brich treat­ed audi­ences to the Mad Scene from Thomas’s Ham­let after Rigo­let­to, and tossed in “Ah, non giunge” from Bellini’s La Son­nam­bu­la at the con­clu­sion of Rossini’s Bar­ber of Seville.

And then there was the time the Met was giv­ing Gounod’s Roméo et Juli­ette in Boston. Dur­ing the cur­tain calls an upright piano was pushed onto the stage, and the evening’s Romeo, the great Jean De Reszke, sat down and accom­pa­nied his Juli­et — Mel­ba, of course — in “Home, Sweet Home.”


This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the 2005 Aspen Opera The­ater pro­gram book.

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.

LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT – Gaetano Donizetti


For most of the 19th Cen­tu­ry Paris was the artis­tic cap­i­tal of the West­ern world. It offered a sophis­ti­ca­tion and cos­mopoli­tan atmos­phere unequaled any­where else. There was an intel­lec­tu­al free­dom, often cou­pled with larg­er fees, plus gen­uine admi­ra­tion and respect for Read more