Thursday, February 2, 2012

Anna Bolena's Glorious Tragedy

In the last forty years Donizetti's Anna Bolena has moved quietly from obscurity to rarity and finally to the repertory.
It is a glorious tragedy and exist in many versions. At its heart is one of the most famous of all stories of royal caprice and the abuse of power. Henry the VIII and his many failed liaisons have been popularized not only in opera but TV miniseries, The Tudors; classic film, Mary Queen of Scots (Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave !) and back in the early days of the PBS marathon dramas an eight part The Six Wives of Henry the Eight in which each wife is seduced, discarded and sometimes done in. Finally there is a Royal Historical cottage industry,one of its most successful practitioners is historian Alison Weir who has taken a special interest in Henry.
Donizetti's Anna, as in the case with most operas, drops all the historical-political subtext and cuts to the chase. Henry is seeking the fulfillment of unfettered romantic desire and a male heir, woe to anyone (including the Pope) who stand in his way. History's tragedy is operas reward, the more collateral damage the better. Courtiers scheme and jockey for favor and hope to avoid the royal wrath. One of the masterstrokes of the Boleyn opera is that the two rivals, the doomed Queen Anna and the rising Jane Seymour move from mutual jealousy and fear to the terrible consciousness of their own helplessness and shared plight. Both have had the fortune and misfortune to love and be loved by Henry. In one of the operas great moments and there are several, the women in soaring duet sing:
                                      Sul guanciale del regio letto ...
                                  Upon the pillow of her royal bed may there lie dread and suspicion ...
                                     And arise between her and her guilty husband, my threatening ghost .  
As in film noir there is no way out, around or through the dilemma that closes in inexorably. This is sung midway through the drama. Everyone knows how all of this is going to end. The operas power rises from the human struggle in the face of the inevitable. Anna, Jane Seymour, Lord Percy, Smeaton (a trousers role) sing of love, hope and happiness against the backdrop of a darkening sky and the axe :
                                                ... E la scure a me concessa,
                             And the axe that is accorded me,may the King more cruel deny her .
Of the three works now popularly know as the Queen Operas, Anna Bolena offers some of Donizetti's most exquisite arias, duets and ensembles. Callas at mid century revived it, Sills and Verrett in the seventies finally and irrefutably made its case and now the Met proves its' staying power. Tune in this Saturday at 11:00 am for Donizetti's Anna Bolena,here on KPAC and KTXI.
by Ron Moore

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