August 13

Viewpoint: Donizetti’s Operatic Breakthrough in Anna Bolena

by Thomas May

“A triumphal success, delirium—it seemed as though the public had gone mad,” wrote Gaetano Donizetti, reporting to his wife on Anna Bolena’s premiere, which was given the day after Christmas in 1830. “Everyone said that they could not remember ever being present at such a decided triumph.”

It might sound like a composer allowing himself to be swept away by the excitement of the moment, but in fact this really did mark a major breakthrough in Donizetti’s career. Only 33 at the time, he had already reached number 30 in his prolific catalogue of 70-something operas. Yet the success he craved had eluded him until Anna Bolena; by the end of the decade Donizetti would be Europe’s most in-demand opera composer.

What was so different about this latest work? Donizetti had only a month to compose Anna Bolena—and the score even recycles material from some of his earlier operas—but he benefited from a convergence of factors ideally suited to the new project. Opera is, above all, a collaborative venture, and no matter how impressive a composer’s talent and experience, the essential components must be in place to be able to cast such a powerful spell over an audience.

For once he was able to work with an excellent libretto that reinforced his gifts for portraying characters and dramatically compelling conflicts in music. Its author, Felice Romani, could be a prickly personality to deal with, and his two previous collaborations with Donizetti had actually been duds, but when he committed himself to a topic, Romani was unsurpassed during the golden age of Italian bel canto as an operatic poet and dramatist. Anna Bolena, for example, avoids treating the dialogue merely as a way to move the story forward between the elaborate solo or ensemble numbers—that is, as formulaic recitative to be gotten through as quickly as possible before we arrive at the juicy stuff. And the ensembles in particular clearly delineate the different perspectives of each character in a way that enables Donizetti to layer dramatically contrasting emotions.

The colorful history of the Tudor monarchs obviously held a special fascination for the composer, who used it for three other operas as well (including two about Elizabeth I and one based on her hapless cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots). In each case, “history” was of course freely adapted and rewritten according to dramatic license. The changes in motivation from Realpolitik to love interest that we find in Anna Bolena unmistakably echo the artistic preoccupations of Donizetti’s era: Henry plans to dump Anne because his romantic allegiance has changed, not because he’s desperate for a male heir. Even more, for Donizetti this history-inspired material had nothing to do with “docudrama” but possessed an allure comparable to the power of mythic archetypes. In fact his Anne Boleyn sets the pattern for several of Donizetti’s great tragic heroines (including Lucia di Lammermoor) who are forced to sacrifice their personal desires.

Another factor crucial to Anna Bolena’s initial success was the availability of a first-rate cast of some of the era’s most celebrated singers. Donizetti conceived the title role in particular for the soprano Giuditta Pasta, who likely gave him direct feedback while he was writing the score as a guest at her villa on Lake Como. Accounts of Pasta’s electrifying effect onstage often suggest a kind of 19th-century Maria Callas admired for both vocal virtuosity and vivid theatrical presence. Many assume the term bel canto, with which Donizetti is so tenaciously linked, refers only to the production of beautiful, purely virtuoso singing—as if in a vacuum—but that notion relies on a false dichotomy between singing and acting. This misunderstanding is a key reason for the neglect that most of Donizetti’s operas began to suffer later in the 19th century.

Indeed it was Maria Callas who became a pivotal figure in the revival of these works for modern audiences by revealing the dramatic vitality of the composer’s original vision. Her legendary interpretation of Anna Bolena at La Scala in 1957 ranks among Callas’s most memorable triumphs and inaugurated the opera’s return into the repertory. In the past few seasons, it has enjoyed a fresh wave of interest, including its first-ever productions at the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.

Callas uncovered the rich emotional scope of Donizetti’s musical characterization. Since then many alternatives have emerged among interpreters of the title role, whose challenges are by no means limited to spinning gorgeous vocal lines. The opera’s climactic final scene compresses multiple perspectives on Anne together into an extraordinary montage, any of which could be explored as a key into her character throughout the rest of the opera. Superficially this finale could be compared to the famous mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, written five years later. (There are some other striking musical-dramatic parallels between both operas as well.) But Anna Bolena is hardly a mere “rehearsal” for the better-known Lucia, and the scene culminates with the heroine regaining her reason and choosing the attitude with which she will face her execution. Though she is imprisoned throughout the second act, she gradually acquires a spiritual strength that stands in powerful contrast to the weakened stature in which we first meet the troubled queen.

And Donizetti’s portrayal of Anne represents just one element in an opera whose real fascination lies in the interactions of its characters. The plot itself is relatively straightforward, but the ensembles—such as the powerful sextet near the end of act one and the trio for Henry, Anne, and Percy in prison—illuminate the various ways in which the principals are transformed and affected by the shifting tides of desire. Even without a solo number, Henry emerges as an imposing presence who casts his shadow over the others. Donizetti exploits the contradiction between the king’s exercise of absolute power and his emotional susceptibility in his scenes with Jane Seymour, reminding us that the image of the virile, libido-driven Henry isn’t just a recent invention of historical fantasies like Showtime’s The Tudors series.

In the first scene, Donizetti even makes a point of disrupting the convention of musical continuity to underscore dramatic conflict when Anne suddenly silences her court musician Smeton, whose melancholy romance was touching too close to home. One of the opera’s highlights comes in the juxtaposition of emotions unfolded in the second-act duet between Anne and Jane. Like a Soviet airbrush of a photo, Henry wants to manipulate events in favor of his present desires. But Anne holds onto historical memory, even considering her situation as possible retribution for having displaced Henry’s first wife, Catherine, when the tables were turned. Perhaps it is this awareness that allows her to sense the honesty of Jane’s guilt. Her ability to move from anger to forgiveness prefigures the supreme control with which she will eventually face death.

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