History Under the Bright Lights: Donizetti's 'Anna Bolena'

From the Vienna State Opera

Soprano Anna Netrebko stars in the Vienna State Opera production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena.

hide captionSoprano Anna Netrebko stars in the Vienna State Opera production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena.

Michael Pohn/Vienna State Opera

Two years before her Oscar-winning role in Black Swan, Natalie Portman appeared in the period drama The Other Boleyn Girl. And that title says a lot about the character Portman played in the film — an historical figure so famous that the title evokes her without even using her full name.

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, was England's queen for just three years before her execution on questionable charges of treason and adultery in 1536. But her influence far outlived her brief time wearing the crown. She's been cited as a key figure in the increased power of the Anglican church in its conflict with the Vatican, and her daughter became one of England's most powerful monarchs, Queen Elisabeth I.

Hit Single

Alone in the Tower of London, just before her execution, Anne Boleyn (soprano Anna Netrebko) tenderly remembers her childhood home, and her early love for Percy, in the aria "Al dolce guidami."

'Al dolci guidami'

4 min 36 sec

By now, Anne has achieved celebrity status not just in history but in all sorts of popular entertainment, from numerous novels and plays to a wide range of films, in which Anne has been portrayed by Merle Oberon, Vanessa Redgrave, Genevieve Bujold and Helena Bonham Carter, as well as Portman.

B Side

Early in Act Two, there's a key confrontation between Anne and Jane Seymour (mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca). Confessing her involvement with the king, Jane begins a dramatic duet by saying that in her heart, she's already been punished ("Dal mio cor punito io sono").

Duet: 'Dal mi cor'

5 min 48 sec

Still, thanks to Gaetano Donizetti and his opera Anna Bolena, there may have been more noteworthy portrayals of Anne Boleyn in the world's opera houses than anywhere else. The opera's title character has been sung by a long list of great sopranos, including Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, Renata Scotto and Joan Sutherland. And now, one of today's operatic superstars can be added to that list.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Anna Bolena in a recent production from Vienna that represents a pair of significant firsts. It's the Vienna State Opera's first ever production of the opera, and soprano Anna Netrebko's first appearance in the dramatic title role.

The Vienna production was also one of 2011's most anticipated operatic events, and the opening night performance lived up to its billing, earning the performers a 20-minute standing ovation. Along with Netrebko, the heralded cast also included bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Henry VIII, mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca as Jane Seymour and mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman as Smeaton, all led by conductor Evelino Pidò.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Anna Bolena'

Henry VIII (Bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo) distrusts his queen, Anne Boleyn, in Donizetti's historical opera, Anna Bolena.

hide captionHenry VIII (Bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo) distrusts his queen, Anne Boleyn, in Donizetti's historical opera, Anna Bolena.

Michael Pohn/Vienna State Opera

Who's Who


Anna Netrebko ............... Anne Boleyn
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo ........ Henry VIII
Elina Garanca .............. Jane Seymour
Dan Paul Dumitrescu ........ Rochefort
Francesco Meli ................. Lord Percy
Elisabeth Kulman ............... Smeaton
Peter Jelosits ....................... Hervey

Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Evelino Pidò, conductor

ACT ONE opens in Windsor castle, where Anne is unhappy, and the courtiers are worried about her future. Anne has failed to bear King Henry a son and his romantic attentions are wandering. He now has his eye on Jane Seymour, one of the queen's ladies. Jane is in love with the king, but she's disturbed by his behavior and concerned about his veiled threats towards Anne.

When Anne's brother, Rochefort, arrives on the scene, he's amazed to see that Lord Percy, Anne's first love, has returned from exile. Percy confides to Rochefort that he's heard rumors of Anne's unhappiness, and that he's been miserable being away from her. Given the king's apparent distrust of Anne, Percy's presence at court seems unwise. But when the king shows up for a hunting party, it turns out that King Henry himself has arranged Percy's return — as a trap for Anne.

If that doesn't put the queen in enough danger, there's also the young man Smeaton, Anne's favorite musician. Smeaton is also in love with the queen, and like many others, he's worried about the king's intentions. Smeaton has a miniature portrait of Anne, which he carries in a locket. He goes to Anne to return it, but has to hide when Rochefort appears.

Rochefort persuades Anne to meet with Percy, who pleads his love. Anne refuses him and Percy draws his sword to kill himself. When Smeaton sees this he thinks Anne is in danger, and rushes out from his hiding place. At the same moment, the king suddenly appears.

Smeaton declares that Anne has done nothing wrong, but then he accidentally drops her portrait at the king's feet. The king orders his guards to detain everyone. Anne begins a spectacular sextet by trying to explain the situation. But as the act ends the king says she'll have to defend herself in court, and Anne knows there may be no way to save herself.

Jane Seymour (mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca) is torn between her love for the king and her duty to Anne Boleyn.

hide captionJane Seymour (mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca) is torn between her love for the king and her duty to Anne Boleyn.

Michael Pohn/Vienna State Opera

In ACT TWO, Jane tells Anne that the king will spare her if she confesses to her crimes. Jane also reveals that King Henry loves another woman. Anne demands to know who it is, and the confrontation leads to a powerful duet. Torn by her love for Henry and her loyalty to Anne, Jane confesses the she is the king's other woman.

At Anne's trial, Smeaton lies and says he is Anne's lover. He's been told that his false confession will save Anne's life — but instead it assures her death. Percy is willing to die to save Anne, and Jane also pleads with the king to let Anne live. But King Henry is determined to see things through.

Alone in the Tower of London, Anne tenderly recalls her childhood home and her early love for Percy. As she begins to pray, bells announce the king's marriage to Jane. To music combining desperation with ecstasy, Anne asks for God's mercy on the king and his new wife. Then she's led away to the execution block as the opera ends.



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