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Donizetti’s Anna Bolena: All Music and No History

Updated on September 6, 2013
Portrait of Anne Boleyn
Portrait of Anne Boleyn | Source

At first glance, it seems like Gaetano Donizetti’s opera about the death of Anne Boleyn tells the story pretty well. Not only does it lay out the situation of Henry VIII ignoring and later condemning Anne Boleyn in favor of Jane Seymour, but it also includes several often forgotten characters such as Boleyn’s brother, Lord Rochfort, and her alleged lover, Mark Smeaton. However, Donizetti and his librettist took quite a bit of artistic license in Anna Bolena, the least of which being their almost laughable way of Italianizing English names.

The Story

The opera begins, accurately enough, with the court, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour all realizing that Henry VIII has a desire for another wife. Anne's plight is further complicated by her brother, her former lover Lord Percy, and the court musician Mark Smeaton, all of whom are manipulated by Henry to create a false charge of adultery against the Queen. The historical accuracy, however, pretty much ends here.

Jane or Giovanna is portrayed as a very sympathetic character who is willing to do anything to save the Queen’s life. Mark Smeaton’s obsession with Anne is shown as going much further than there is any evidence that it ever did. When Henry brings the charge against Anne, the Queen is condemned to death along with her brother, Lord Percy, and Smeaton. Percy and George Boleyn are given a chance to walk away alive, but they choose to die alongside their Queen. Anne goes insane while waiting for death but is brought back to reality after hearing the wedding bells announcing Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour – something that does not make a whole lot of sense even from a dramatic standpoint.

Gaetano Donizetti, 1835
Gaetano Donizetti, 1835 | Source

The Music

But who cares about historical accuracy! This is an opera, for heaven’s sake. It’s all about the music. And the music in Anna Bolena is absolutely stunning, even though none of it is very well known. Admittedly, pretty much all the other parts are overlooked in favor of the music sung by Anna and Giovanna (soprano and mezzo-soprano, respectively). Anna very much steals the show, not so much because she has the most to sing, but because she has all the best music. Although it has often fallen in the shadow of other more famous works such as Lucia di Lammermoor and I Puritani, Anna Bolena’s highlight is a colossal 20 minute long mad scene, crowned by as absolutely kick-butt cabaletta called Coppia Iniqua.

Even though nearly every Bel Canto opera rotates around the mad scene, there is another part of Anna Bolena that is actually more important: During Act II, Scene I, there is a duet between Anna and Giovanna called Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio. Although it is a confrontation between the two women it is not exactly an argument, but rather each woman expressing her sorrow at the same time. Like Bellini’s Mira, o Norma it requires perfect harmony between the voices as well as the ability to perform long phrases of coloratura in unison. Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio is considered one of the most technically perfect pieces of music ever written. However, the public has never quite caught on to this composition. The music is too deep and the subject too long and slow. Nevertheless, this opera is a masterpiece.

Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio

Donizetti: Anna Bolena
Donizetti: Anna Bolena

Mp3 recording of Maria Callas from 1957


The Title Role

The main reason why Anna Bolena has hardly ever been performed is because it is extremely difficult to find a voice capable of singing the title role. The role of Anna Bolena requires the perpetual anomaly of the operatic world, namely, the dramatic coloratura soprano.

The dramatic voice is the largest and most powerful voice known to man (think Wagner). However, most dramatic sopranos struggle with trills and embellishment, and often do not have the higher register associated with the lighter coloratura sopranos. Both Donizetti and Bellini (and later Verdi) had a real thing about writing roles that require a combination of two voices. Anna Bolena, however, differs from most other works in that it calls for an almost ridiculous amount of coloratura. Mozart wasn’t the only one who sometimes wrote “too many notes”. Donizetti went completely off the deep end when he wrote Anna Bolena’s title role. The music is full of pyrotechnics. However, the same Tweety-Bird coloraturas who were making a living singing Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula could never even dream about singing Anna Bolena. This role calls for absolute dramatic power.

And so, the problem is that there have probably been only about 10 true dramatic coloratura sopranos in the whole history of opera. It appears Donizetti may have learned his lesson after seeing the lackluster performance history of Anna Bolena: most of his future operas call for either a light coloratura soprano, or for dramatic vocals that are easier to sing.

Portrait by Karl Briullov of Giuditta Pasta as Anna Bolena
Portrait by Karl Briullov of Giuditta Pasta as Anna Bolena | Source

However, Donizetti cannot be blamed for the way he wrote Anna Bolena, not only because the music is so beautiful, but because he was working with a living legend in the person of soprano Giuditta Pasta (1797-1865). Before Maria Callas, there was Giuditta Pasta, and she was the greatest dramatic coloratura soprano of all time. She could sing anything she wanted to. The only reason why Callas is more famous is because Pasta lived long before the recording era.

Giuditta Pasta not only created the title roles of both Anna Bolena and the equally difficult Norma, but also the role of Amina in La Sonnambula, thus covering both ends of the dramatic coloratura spectrum. After she retired, many of her roles were taken over by the highly talented Giulia Grisi (1811-1869). However, the 19th century had only one Giuditta Pasta, just as the 20th century had only one Maria Callas. And that, more than anything, is why there have been so few performances of Anna Bolena.

© 2013 LastRoseofSummer2


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    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image

      LastRoseofSummer2 4 years ago from Arizona

      Twilight Lawns - Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I completely understand about the Maria Callas thing. It took me a very long time to learn to like her voice.

      P.S. I love Sutherland and Horne too!

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 4 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      A well written and absolutely entertaining Hub. Thank you.

      Unfortunately I do not like callas's voice. Shoot me down in flames, if you must.

      But... And I cannot believe I am admitting this, I have just listened to this version of 'Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio' and retract my words, and my former opinion.

      I have always found Callas's voice too full of "mucus", only, until now liking her 'Casta Diva'. no one will better Sutherland in that part and of course she and Marilyn Horne in that amazing duet, cannot be bettered, in my opinion.

      Thank you for a wonderful hub. I must go and delve in Bel Canto, once again. I have left it alone for far too long.