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Opera Daily 🎶 — Anna Bolena and the art of bel canto
Romance is at the heart of opera. Before we get into Anna Bolena, we want to share one of the most beautiful and seductive arias for mezzo-soprano, “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“Softly awakes my heart”) from Camille Saint-Saëns's opera Samson and Delilah. I think the song conveys how we are often powerless against love, no matter how much we fight it. No one sings this piece like Jessye Norman. ❤️
My heart opens to your voice
Like the flowers open
To the kisses of the dawn!
But, oh my beloved,
To better dry my tears,
Let your voice speak again!
Tell me that you are returning
To Delilah forever!
Anna Bolena (1830)
If you missed The Three Queens kickoff post from last Sunday, you can read and listen here.
Donizetti's Anna Bolena is based loosely on the last days of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. While married to Anne, Henry VIII has fallen in love with Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn. To annul their marriage and make way for Jane to become his third wife, Henry VIII stages a conspiracy involving Anne’s former lover, Lord Richard Percy. In the end, Anne is sentenced to death after a rigged trial.
Bel canto can be intoxicating and it often does this by putting the full spotlight on the voices. There is undoubtedly something formulaic about the music of Donizetti, but it works. As you listen to the examples below, you will notice that every run, or note even, is inspired by an emotion the singer is trying to express. Without knowing exactly what a singer is saying, the audience always seems to know the emotion that the singer is trying to convey.
These serious Donizetti operas (opera seria) are incredibly hard to cast. They require singers who can sing with the agility necessary, as well as the power to sing these big dramatic legato (smooth and flowing) moments. To get a sense of what’s required from the singers, listen to this masterclass with soprano Angela Kim working with opera director, conductor, and vocal coach, John Fisher on one of the arias from Anna Bolena. It’s a great window into what’s required. Albeit intense, this opera can be incredibly gratifying for the singer; the key is making sure the singers don’t get wrapped up in it all without bringing the audience along (I must admit, I think it goes on longer than it needs to, and Act 2 could use an edit or two).
Anna Bolena was Donizetti's first major hit, though he had already composed around 30 operas. Giuditta Pasta, the Italian singer, created the role of Anna in 1830 with Donizetti. Unfortunately, she died in 1865, so there are no recordings of her singing.
In 1957, Anna Bolena was revived at La Scala with soprano Maria Callas. In the following excerpt of the Act I finale, Callas does an incredible job of conveying her anger and surprise at Enrico’s accusation of her infidelity (which of course, is false because he made it up!). Although there is no footage of Callas performing the role, her voice conveys so much that one doesn’t need to see her to imagine how she might have acted on stage.
🎧 Listening Example (8 minute listen): Act I Finale (Judgement Scene) from Anna Bolena sung here by soprano Maria Callas
At this point in the opera, Giovanna (Anna’s lady in waiting) admits that she has been having an affair with Anna’s husband, Enrico. Listen below to the two characters spar in one of the most exciting opera scenes ever written.
🎧 Listening Example (7 minute listen): Act 2 duet, “Dio, che mi vedi … Sul suo capo” between Anna and Giovanna from Anna Bolena sung here by soprano Leyla Gencer and mezzo soprano Giulietta Simionato
Here’s another interpretation of the duet between Anna and Giovanna from Anna Bolena sung here by soprano Anna Netrebko and mezzo soprano Elīna Garanča
🎧 Listening Example (5 minute listen): In this beautiful aria “Vivi tu” (“You must live”) from Act 2 of Anna Bolena sung here by tenor Jerry Hadley, Percy and Rochefort learn that Anna is to be executed and so they choose to be executed as well. This aria is Percy convincing Rochefort that he should be the only one to die and that he should live.
This last scene is probably the most famous scene from the opera. The “mad scene” is a staple of 19th-century operas, with Donizetti and Bellini leading the charge, representing pain and mental struggle through musical means. In this scene, Anne is in prison and has gone mad. In her cell, a chorus of ladies comments on her grief. Anna enters and asks them, “Are you weeping?”, "Piangete voi?" She imagines that it is her wedding day to the king. Then she imagines that she sees Percy, and she asks him to take her back to her childhood home. (“Al dolce guidami castel natio . . .”)
🎧 Listening Example (8 minute listen): Act 2, Anna’s Mad Scene from Anna Bolena.
There have been some fantastic interpretations of this scene by many talented sopranos including, Beverly Sills, Anna Netrebko, and Sondra Radvanovsky (if you want even more, here are 23 soprano’s that attempt to hit the high D in Act 1)
The opera’s most famous passage, without doubt, is the final cabaletta for soprano, “Coppia iniqua.”
Even if you don’t care for the story, this opera is exciting for its sheer athleticism and demand for superhuman vocal stamina.
If you would like to experience the full opera, you can find two full productions here.
Thank you for reading and listening, and “see” you next week for some Maria Stuarda.