Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena (1830)

Opera in two acts. Running Time: 3 hours 5 minutes.


Giuditta Pasta in the title role, circa 1830. Wikimedia. 

SETTING: England, 1536. Henry VIII has tired of Anne Boleyn and wants to marry Jane Seymour (because no man-child). He constructs a vicious trap in order to frame Anne for adultery, and thus give him a reason to have her executed, in there person of her former lover the exiled Lord Richard Percy.

This review is of the April 2011 production at the Wiener Staatsoper with Anna Netrebko in the title role and Elina Garanca as Jane Seymour.



0: The overture ** is a complex orchestral exercise (melodies move from one section to another rapidly) and has a series of good tune (none falling into military bombast as might be expected).

ACT 1: (91 minutes, including overture)

Scene 1: The Queen’s apartments in Windsor Castle, night.

7, 10, 15, 18, 21: Apparently Henry VIII wants some Jane Seymour (the 16th century Catholic one, not the 20th century Bond Girl and star of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, although knowing Henry Tudor he probably would have tried to tap that as well before the #MeToo movement). Anyway we get a dainty chorus of male courtiers who worry about Anne a lot * before Jane pops up from snicker doodles and tea with the King and expresses her own feelings of guilt regarding Anne in a recitative *. Anne arrives and acts very c-nty towards Jane (with good reason, although even she doesn’t know why quite yet). Sexy contralto in boy’s attire Smeaton sings for Anne **, who eventually orders him to stop and she confronts her personal emotions in a monologue * directed towards the audience in which she reveals that she desires her first pre-marital lover and not the splendour the King has given her *.

24, 31, 34, 38: Suddenly we are provided with an up tick in the music ** as Jane contemplates Anne’s words and thinks about how she oddly dreads replacing her in the King’s heart. Henry comes on and promises her everything (including the elimination of Anne), in a serviceable but rather sedate duet. Jane does harm things up a little by worrying *. Henry describes Anne’s prior interest for him and this prompts the first tune in the duet ** namely a cradle-rocking melody from Jane which returns towards the end *. He promises Jane husband, sceptre, and throne.

Scene 2: Some random place in Windsor Castle, day.

43, 45, 52, 57: Lord Percy is greeted by a surprised Lord Rochefort (Anne’s brother). Percy asks if Anne is unhappy. Affirmative, says Rochefort and Percy embarks on a rather adulterous aria about how ever since he has gone into exile he has wanted to possess Anne again *. A chorus of hunters is heard from without and Percy goes into more loverly tenor stuff **. Henry returns with the hunters and is greeted by Anne. Percy is reintroduced into Anne’s dismal court life under the pretext of Henry believing him to be innocent of the charges which caused his exile. Anne emotes while Henry tells Harvey (the Captain of the Guard) to watch everything that takes place between Anne and Percy during a glorious quintet **. The scene ends with foreboding from Anne and Rochefort, excitement from Percy, and anticipation from Henry **.

Scene 3: Windsor castle, close to the Queen’s Apartments.

59, 62, 64, 66, 70, 71, 73, 77, 80, 82, 85, 88: An orchestral intermezzo precedes the next tableau *, Smeaton arrives to return a locket containing Anne’s portrait which he has stolen out of his unrequited infatuation with her *. He becomes a little cocky * as he talks about how manly it is to not reveal your love for a woman to that woman. He gets frightened by a noise and hides, for some reason taking the locket with him. A furious orchestral intermezzo * leads to Anne and Rochefort’s arrival. Rochefort (stupidly) pleads for Anne to grant Percy an interview and seems to show incestuous interest in his own sister. She at first regrets this, saying to herself that she is too lax, but once Percy arrives she goes potty and makes Christological references to her suffering. Percy expresses his certainty that he could forget past misery in her arms *, this turns rather romantic as he declares that to him she will always be Anne **. She begs him to take pity on her situation, adultery is treason for a queen consort **, but he pays no heed and threatens to take his own life. Smeaton comes out of hiding, thinking Percy is attacking Anne. She knows she is ruined and faints, Rockefort arrives but it is too late, Henry arrives and sees the naked swords and orders the two men under arrest. Jane arrives. Notice that Anne is still passed out. Smeaton tries to protest that Anne is innocent * and offers his naked breast to the King to run him threw, revealing the locket with Anne’s portrait, proof of Smeaton’s infatuation with the Queen. Anne finally revives and begs Henry that it is all a misunderstanding but he subjects her to psychological torture **, prompting the first utterly great moment in the opera ***. The stretta *** is grand with Percy and Smeaton taken under arrest with Anne placed under house arrest to await trial, realizing that she is being victimized by an unjust law.

ACT 2: (92 minutes)

Scene 1: London, an antichamber of the Queen’s Apartments.

3, 9, 15, 17: An oddly happy introduction and chorus of female courtiers worried about Anne comes on and they eventually start to worry *. Anne arrives and the ladies tell her to put trust in Heaven (in this case a idiotic idea but I get the sentiment of hoping that virtue will not perish, but this is opera damn it!). Harvey shows up and tells her that her ladies are being called to testify (Anne thinks to her innocence, more than likely they are being taken to extract negative false testimony). Jane arrives *** and tells Anne rather bizarrely that a guilty plea will result in her avoiding execution (this makes no sense because adultery by a Queen consort can only be punished with death). Apparently an argument that a divorce could dissolve the marriage to Henry on the grounds that Anne entered into marriage on a false pretext and was in love with another man, rendering the marriage invalid from the beginning. Anne declares that her successor in Henry’s heart will wear a crown of thorns ** (possibly a reference to Jane’s own demise only 18 months after Anne’s as a result of giving Henry his only legitimate male offspring). Jane reveals that she is the replacement ***, expecting Anne to condemn her, but instead Anne declares that only Henry is truly guilty for what has happened and what will happen. Anna does have a hard time getting over the idea that Henry wants Jane over her (this is rather understandable: Jane Seymour, for all intents and purposes, was a wallflower in real life and no one understood what Henry saw in her other than a functional uterus who could uncontestedly provide him with a legitimate male heir). Good duetting to the end of the scene from the two women.

Scene 2: Antichamber leading to the Council of Peers

25, 30, 32, 35: The Council assembles in a solemn chorus **. Harvey comes on and reveals that Smeaton has made a damning confession (false of course, but Henry will hardly care). All this occurs to the most placid tune. Henry comes on and is told about Smeaton’s false confession having been made under the misapprehension that doing so would save Anne. Anne herself arrives ** and pleads with Henry that her position as Queen Consort be respected. Percy doesn’t help things by yelling at the King for taking his girlfriend from him. He declares that soon he will stand before G-d * and Anne declares that although she might die, but her dignity can never be taken from her: her only mistake was in trading Percy’s pure love for her for Henry’s wealth and power by becoming his consort. Henry decides to just tell them then and now that they will both die *. Percy then spills some rather hot beans that he and Anne have already been married for over a decade and that her marriage to Henry is bigamist ***, or rather worse, polyandry!  This, ironically, only gives Henry more impetuous to kill both of them in order to mask Anne’s crime. So Henry has them both taken under guard to the Tower and praises Jane’s purity (or whatever, she really isn’t all that fantastic either).

47, 52: Jane arrives and tells Henry how horrible she feels about being a two-timing bayotch to Anne, and says that she wants to go away **. Henry tells her that this will not save Anne.  Harvey announces the findings of the Council: Anne’s marriage to Henry is dissolved and she is sentenced to be executed. The chorus rather gleefully tells Henry that it is up to him to accept the verdict so that the sentence may be carried out. Jane makes one last plea for Henry to spare Anne’s life, but Henry demands Anne’s death. Jane makes a rather roomful prediction (to the most sunny accompaniment *) that heaven and earth watch Henry’s actions and are disgusted with him. Although there are still a full forty minutes left to the opera, this is the last we see of Jane.

Scene 3: Tower of London.

57: The last 38 minutes consist of two massive numbers and a scene change: first Rochefort is brought in and comforted by Percy. Harvey comes in and says that although the two men are pardoned by the King, Anne is to be executed as scheduled. They choose to die with her in a lovely aria ** for Percy.

Scene 4: Anna’s apartment in the Tower.

63, 66, 72, 76, 81, 86, 87, 89: Stand by for one of the longest death scenes in all opera *** (29 minutes). Anne has totally lost her mind (as per operatic convention), and now is ready for her big concentrate final aria con coro. After nearly three minutes of orchestral introduction, the chorus of ladies comes on ** and recount all of this. A QE1 mini-me steps out for theatrical effect and Anne thinks that today is her wedding day **. Finally Donizetti pulls out the big guns and quotes Henry Bishop’s Home, Sweet, Home ***. Mini-Me is taken off as Percy, Smeaton, and Rochefort are brought on by Harvey. Anne awakens from her delirium ** just as the men are brought in. Smeaton admits his part in the disaster and Anne loses her marbles again and gives Smeaton a  kiss (which was not added for homoerotic effect). Whatever, anyways, Anne has one last grand turn in her *** (this time backed by the three others in a prayer). Jovial marching is heard **, Henry is marrying Jane (already?). Anna has no idea where she is and declares that her blood must be spilt to complete the crime. She decides not to condemn Henry and Jane *** and passes out, the others declaring that she has already been sacrificed.  QE1 returns. Curtain.


Anna Bolena is one of the first operas that actually tackles adult situations head-on, even to the point that we get entire monologues (and choruses) expressing emotions immediately to the audience which are supposed to be inaudible to the other characters on stage.  Knowing both history and the plot as we do, the case against Anne here is entirely based on circumstantial evidence, none of which immediately implicates her in anything. The fact that Henry himself recalls Percy, deliberately in order to trap her, would have made Percy’s successful stabbing of Anne enough to prove her innocence to everyone. The second act does rather procrastinate with the trial: we all know that Anna will be executed regardless, and Henry’s rather annoying tendency to be a backstabber really doesn’t garner from anyone including, ultimately, Jane.

Historically, there is no evidence of Jane knowing of Henry’s plan to eliminate Anne in order to marry her until after she had been sentenced to death. There is actually a stronger case that Anne and Percy were actually secretly married (thus making Anne guilty of tricking Henry Tudor into committing bigamy with her, which, admittedly, would be reason enough for him to have her executed. It also throws a big monkey wrench on Elizabeth I’s claim to legitimacy if not just her father’s bigamy but her mother’s were factored).

The score contains some very fine moments: beautiful choruses, the overture, the first act finale, Percy’s aria, and of course Anne’s massive concluding scene are all spectacular, but with it do come a few moments that aren’t so spectacular. The beginnings of both acts drag and the Henry-Jane relationship really does not seem to have inspired Donizetti at all. He does a much better job with Anna and Percy, especially Percy. Smeaton is, like almost all trouser roles, a bit of a conceit. The plot is also very slow (the opera eventually does feel its 3 hours), and there is actually very little storyline (Verdi would have done this in 2 hours). However Donizetti demonstrates great mastery over his orchestra and produces some of the most human characters in all tragic opera in Anne, Percy, Jane, and Henry. They’re motives might not always be coherent (nor morally acceptable), but their emotions are. B+/A-.

One response to “Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena (1830)”

  1. You’re right that it’s sloooooooow (even by bel canto standards); that’s why it’s only a B for me. Some fun music, though – particularly the quintet, the Act I finale, and the Act II ensemble.

    I like the paragraph with the joke about Jane Seymour!


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