Women Scorned: The Met’s HD Anna Bolena and the Fury That Wasn’t

The White Tower, within the famed Tower of London complex(Photo: skinnylawyer (Flickr))
The White Tower, within the famed Tower of London complex(Photo: skinnylawyer (Flickr))

When I was but a lass, I studied for a year in London, England. While there, I visited the Tower of London, where at the time, at least, stood a full suit of armor once worn by King Henry VIII.

The armor stood comfortably in its glass case, the bottom of which might have hovered an inch or two above the floor. What remains with me about viewing Henry VIII’s armor is not some romanticized image of a warrior king towering in armor and chain mail over approaching invaders. Nothing of the sort. Instead, I remember standing at a one- to two-inch height disadvantage to the armor and still looking down at what would have been Henry’s eyes.

In other words, King Henry VIII, whose larger-than-life role in history and longer-than-average list of unhappy wives tower in our imaginations like twin giants, was, at least by modern-day standards, ironically, quite diminutive. And assuming Henry actually wore the armor at one time or another, the myths of Henry’s over-generous girth were just that: myths.

Last Saturday, viewers of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live HD transmission of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena got something of the history book view of King Henry as egomaniac and abusive husband. But they also got an interesting, if perhaps not in all cases believable, take on the inner landscape of the scorned wife.

First the performances themselves. Ildar Abdrazakov was brilliantly smarmy as the groping, ruthless king. Ekaterina Gubanova was breathtaking as the conflicted Giovanna (Jane Seymour). Tamara Mumford portrayed a perfectly guileless Seaton. And I can only add to the accolades Anna Netrebko has already received for her performance in the title role, a role which suits her voice as surely as Henry’s armor must have suited him and which Netrebko probably inhabited to the full extent Felice Romani’s libretto would permit.

Anna Bolena is certainly not the first opera to suffer from a so-so libretto, and it must be said that this libretto is far from the worst. There are a few localized instances in the libretto where the dramatic action lags, though seemingly for logistical reasons (the Act II chorus of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, for example, which halts dramatic progress but allows the principal singers a brief rest.)

What seems a bigger issue with the libretto is how the character of Anne Boleyn is drawn. As far I as know, hell still hath no fury like a woman scorned. And while in Anna Bolena we do see a heartbroken Anne Boleyn, we also see a scorned wife and a betrayed friend who refuses to call down vengeance on her kingly husband and his paramour.

On one hand, perhaps such saintly characters exist mainly in opera libretti. While we’re suspending disbelief, we may as well go all the way. On the other hand, wouldn’t even a moment of Anna’s uncontrolled rage have made for a great vengeance aria? The closest we come to this is after the pained Giovanna has confessed to Anna her indiscretions with the king, and Anna has lamented, then forgiven them. At that point, Anna decides that Giovana is not to blame for loving Enrico, and that rather, the one who “put those flames” in Giovanna’s heart is the guilty party. And even when the condemned Anna is told that bells are ringing to celebrate Enrico’s new bride, Anna still refuses to call for vengeance. Why? Because she’d rather not have that on her head when she goes to meet her maker, which, as she knows all too well, will be sooner rather than later.

Anna’s decisions to take the high road were, of course, the morally right ones. If Anna had thrown Giovanna under the bus for her disloyalty, Anna would not have Giovanna – whose conflicted agony Anna sees clearly – as an ally in her own future travails. Shrewd. And yes, by letting vengeance remain in the hands of the divine, Anna hedges her bets for her own imminent Judgment Day. These decisions make her an extremely sympathetic character, one you might like to know or even be. But do they make her a believable character, especially for an opera?

So, as an opera-goer, I ask, where was the fury? But as a member of the human race, I’m glad that there’s at least an interpretation of Anne Boleyn that preserves some measure of the troubled woman’s dignity. However flawed Romani’s libretto may be, it casts Anna Bolena as the bigger man. Maybe it’s time the Tower of London display her armor.