Anna Bolena, Opera by G. Donizetti
Gaetano Donizetti had already made a name for himself as a master of opera buffa when he turned his sights to more serious subjects. Focussed on the trials of the English Tudor dynasty, he produced the modestly successful Il castello di Kenilworth in 1829. Wasting no time, he continued his exploration of English history. Anna Bolena came a mere year later, a historical drama that opened a new phase in the composer’s career. Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera di Roma stages the classic Donizetti opera.
Instead of relying entirely on fiction, Donizetti chose to base his first serious opera in historical events and real persons. Anne Boleyn, easily the most captivating and mysterious wife of the English King Henry VIII, captured the composer’s imagination. Librettist Felice Romani crafted the Italian libretto based on previous literary accounts of Anne’s life, such as Enrico VIII ossia Anna Bolena by Ippolito Pindemonte or Anna Bolena by Alessandro Pepoli.
Donizetti’s Anna Bolena presents a highly fictionalised version of Anne Boleyn’s life and times, turning the well-known historical facts of her marriage to Henry VIII upside down. In the opera, Anne is a self-sacrificing, innocent woman who regrets her decision to turn her back on true love in her pursuit of the throne. In the royal court, both Lord Smeaton and Lord Percy pursue the unhappy queen, which does not escape the King’s attention.
Henry VIII sets a trap for Anne’s secret suitors, and they unwittingly implicate her. This clears the King’s way to marrying Jane Seymour. Instead of fighting her ill fate, Anne Boleyn graciously accepts it and dies, so that the English monarchy can live on.
Anna Bolena’s romanticised look at historical events could not work without a strong evocative score, and Donizetti delivered exactly that. Arias, duets of love and conflict, and ensemble numbers follow one another in strict order, moving the plot forward. The characters are wrought with tension, which their vocal performances reflect aptly.
Anna, the opera’s undisputable heroine, delivers vocal lines that shine with innocence, nobleness and forgiveness. Giovanna (Jane Seymour) provides a well-developed counterweight with finely tuned melodies in the mezzo-soprano register. The two separate prison scenes are each a masterclass in musical characterisation and dramatic scoring.
Anna Bolena debuted on 26 December 1830 at Teatro Carcano in Milan, and its success established Donizetti as a Maestro once and for all.