Yesterday I was able to attend, for the first time, one of the Met Live in HD broadcasts. (This is a programme whereby the Metropolitan Opera in New York broadcasts live via satellite to movie theatres around the world.) I saw Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, with Anna Netrebko singing the title role. I enjoyed myself thoroughly. It’s a good way to see an opera: you get the excitement of a live performance, but with close-up visuals of the singers, plus some backstage footage, including interviews with the principals. I’d like to go again someday.
Anna Bolena is not one of Donizetti’s most popular operas, though it does retain a toe-hold on the periphery of the repertory. He wrote 70-odd in total, so it is not surprising that not all are in wide circulation. Anna Bolena was his 35th, and was, I am told, his first big success. That’s resilience for you. The story is about the fateful last days of Anne Boleyn. There are five main roles: Anne, as the troubled Queen; Henry VIII, her (gratifyingly) villainous husband, who is looking for an excuse to rid himself of Anne in order to make room for Jane Seymour; then there is Jane, of course, a confidant of Anne but also secretly carrying on with Henry; Lord Percy, in love with Anne for many years and now returned from exile; and Smeaton, a royal page, also in love with Anne, whose fantasies become the occasion for her downfall.
I am not a connoisseur of bel canto opera; though I may listen for ever so long, I cannot really tell my Donizettis from my Bellinis and my Rossinis. There is certainly something formulaic about the music of Anna Bolena, but it’s a winning formula, and I am not complaining. Donizetti wrote the entire thing in about a month. It falls easily on the ear, is full of beautiful lines and brilliant high notes, and includes a smattering of dramatic duets and trios. At just under three hours in performance, the argument could be made that it goes on longer than it needs to, and the second act (of two) in particular could be profitably edited for brevity.
The relative rarity of this opera translates into few available video clips, and none (as far as I can find) with English subtitles. Here is a duet, called Va’, infelice (Go, unhappy one), for Anne and Jane, from Act II. Anne, condemned by Henry and awaiting her fate, offers forgiveness to Jane for her betrayal, but Jane receives the forgiveness like a burden. “Your pardon is worse than the scorn which I feared.” The two roles are sung here by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca, from a Viennese production staged earlier this year. It would be hard to imagine two more glamorous sopranos in these regal roles!
The most famous scene in the opera is probably the ‘mad scene’ from near the end of Act II. It is not so famous as Donizetti’s other mad scene, from Lucia di Lammermoor, but it is fair to say that it is Anna Bolena‘s big hit. Anne is in prison, and has gone mad. She sings about how her wedding day has finally arrived, the king awaits her, and so forth. A chorus of ladies comments on how sad is her plight. Then she thinks of Percy, and of death, and imagines a scene of pastoral beauty: a quiet river, and green trees, where she can forget her troubles. Anna Netrebko sings again, from the same Viennese production.
Finally, here is the last scene in the opera, in which Anne, facing execution, and in response to pitying comments from the crowd, asks God’s mercy on those who are taking her life. It’s a moment of heroic magnanimity, played rather too vengefully by Anna Netrebko here. But I like the final gesture. The closing moments of the Met production were even better: Anna exposed her neck, and then began to rise, on a platform, toward the menacing figure of the executioner, high above the stage, as the curtain fell. Terrific.