Anne Boleyn…The Opera!

Anne Boleyn (1503?-1536) on her last day referred to herself as 'Anne sans-tete'(Photo: Bettman Archive/National Portrait Gallery)
Anne Boleyn (1503?-1536) on her last day referred to herself as 'Anne sans-tete'(Photo: Bettman Archive/National Portrait Gallery)

The Metropolitan Opera opens its 128th season next week with a work new to the company, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.  Anna Netrebko stars in the title role, with Stephen Costello and Ildar Abdrazakov. The production by David McVicar comes to New York from the Staatsoper, Vienna where Netrebko’s first outing in the title role last spring had its admirers-and its detractors-chiefly those who think Bolena is an opera that should only be sung by artists who have been dead for years.

Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, second wife of the mighty Henry VIII was executed on charges of treason, adultery and incest on May 19, 1536.  Her original sentence had been “to be burned or have her head smitten off, as the king’s pleasure be further known.”  It was the king’s pleasure that this woman  who had failed to provide a male heir who had once been the object of Henry’s lust-be got rid of ASAP.

Anne had one request, for a quick death. As befitted her station, a French swordsman was imported from Calais-”who cut off her head whilst she was unawares.”

Why aren’t there ten operas on this hapless lady?

Anna Bolena is new to the Met but not to New York. Beverly Sills did the role at the  New York City Opera forty years ago. This was part of the famous “Tudor Ring”.  Sills starred in three operas by Donizetti, and in turn played Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, I, then Mary Stuart, then the unhappy Anne. Sills was great-I saw her in these operas yup, forty years (gulp) ago.

But Anna Bolena’s entry into the 20th century goes back to April 1957, when Maria Callas sang the role at La Scala, Milan. Callas’s performance was broadcast. You can hear it today (call me up on the phone).  The score is heavily cut-even distorted.  The tenor role is shredded to nothing. The Met has a terrific young tenor called Stephen Costello. I hope he gets to sing the entire role.

We meet Anna in the last weeks of her life. She’s tricked into an innocent meeting with a former lover, then arrested. There’s a teary and blood curdling confrontation in the Tower with rival and wife #3,  Jane Seymour. Anna, as befits a Donizetti heroine, has the de rigeur mad scene, gorgeous aria invoking happier days, then a cabaletta of curses upon the new royal couple before she is led to the scaffold.  The real Anna had a sweeter revenge. Jane Seymour lasted 16 months before dying in childbirth.  Anne’s last words were scathing, calling the husband about to murder her: “The sweetest and most Christian prince that ever lived.”

Anna Bolena will be seen in movie theatres worldwide, live from the Met on October 15th. It will be good to see this opera again after so many years. Anna Netrebko is a looker with a fine voice-you know she will be cheered to the walls.

Comments
  • Yohalem

    The most important thing about Anne Boleyn (a matter never mentioned in the opera) is that Henry VIII made her his excuse for ending England’s relationship with the Church of Rome. Anne, unlike Henry, was a convinced Protestant, and her death signalled that Henry was backtracking a bit on religious questions, though he never submitted again to the pope. Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, created the Church of England as it continues to exist.