The lyric tragedy Anna Bolena is a two–act Italian opera composed by Gaetano Donizetti on an Italian libretto by Felice Romani. The opera’s libretto was largely based on two plays with accounts of the life and times of Queen Anne Boleyn. One account was by Marie-Joseph Chénier in Henry VIII while the second was by Alessandro Pepoli in Anna Bolena. The opera was first premiered in Milan’s Teatro Carcano on 26th December 1830. What made and maintains the opera among the greatest of all time is the duet between Anna and Jane Seymour in soprano and mezzo soprano respectively. None like it has ever been achieved to date in the operatic repertoire.
Anna Bolena gained wide acclaim and recognition in Europe at that time and was performed, though irregularly, from the 1850’s to the early 20th century. But it was not until after the Second World War that the opera was revived and placed forever on the global opera scene. When on 30th December 1947, the Gaetano Donizetti’s opera was performed in Barcelona to celebrate the centennial of Gran Teatre del Liceu, the audience shed tears of joy. The theatre had actually been opened back in 1847 with the same opera, Anna Bolena. During this performance, the lead cast included Sara Scuderi (Anna Bolena), Giulietta Simionato (Jane Seymour) and Cesare Siepi (Henry VIII).
After that, Luchino Visconti directed a lavish production of the opera performed on the April of 1957 at La Scala for Maria Callas. This was to be one of Luchino’s greatest moments of triumph. From there on, Anna Bolena opera gained worldwide support in opera theatres, thereby earning regular performances and even numerous recordings.
The story of the opera was derived from a historical account of Queen Anne Boleyn, although experts argue vehemently that the libretto written by Felice Romani for Gaetano Donizetti’s opera was not based on historical facts, rather it was a far-fetched plot reminiscent of the history of England. The setting of the two acts in the lyric tragedy was however in Windsor and in London, England, in 1536, both place and time being in complete agreement with the historical account of the Queen.
Anna Bolena Opera had eight main characters namely Enrico VIII who played the role of King Henry VIII in bass; Anna Bolena who plays the role of the King’s second wife in soprano; Giovanna Seymour, Jane Seymour and the king’s third wife all in mezzo-soprano; Smeton playing the role of a court musician also in mezzo soprano, and finally Percy playing the role of Anna’s former lover in tenor.
The play has a very basic plot, starting the first act with Enrico VIII having an affair with Giovanna Seymour. But at that time, Anna Bolena is his official wife and the king devices a way to get rid of her. He immediately orders that Anna’s former over, Percy, be brought to her. When Percy comes, Anna narrates her predicament to him, talking about how much the king hated her. In response, Percy declares his undying love for Anna. When Anna dismisses him, he threatens to kill himself with his sword. At this time, the courts musician Smeton enters fearing that Anna, whom he loved heartily, was in danger. The ensuing scuffle has Percy trying to kill himself, Smeton stopping him and Anna shouting. This brings the king to see what is happening and upon seeing Anna and ‘her lovers’, he deems it evidence of her adultery. He does not hesitate to order for Anna’s arrest.
In act two, Anna has been imprisoned at the Tower of London when Giovanna comes to visit. Giovanna pleads with Anna to confess her guilt in order to have her life spared. Additionally she tells Anna that she is set to be the new Queen of England. Anna curses Giovanna fiercely but Giovanna readily begs for forgiveness which Anna Bolena grants and blames Enrico instead. Smeton is desperate to save Anna and he “confesses” of their affair. Enrico uses this evidence to confront Anna Bolena and even after Giovanna pleads for Anna’s life, the King has no mercy or restraint with Anna. He therefore orders Anna Bolena’s execution, and the opera ends with Anna singing a prayer while being led to a scaffold. Simultaneously, a cannon fire announces the marriage of Giovanna to Enrico.
Besides this fabulous lyrical tragedy, Gaetano Donizetti composed other operas but none of them had a historical libretto. Some of the others included L’elisir d’amore, Lucrezia Borgia, La Favorite, Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale, Maria Stuarda and La Fille du Régiment