Opera Daily: Donizetti, Drama & The Three Queens

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The Three Queens

This month we are going to tackle three bel canto masterpieces by the composer Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena (1830), Maria Stuarda (1834), and Roberto Devereux (1837).

Gaetano Donizetti was the master of bel canto. Bel canto (bell-CAHN-toh) is a singing style in Italian opera from the mid-18th to early 19th centuries. Specific singers and composers became known for this style (the composers Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Vincenzo Bellini have been called the “three kings of bel canto”). However, it refers to any opera where the essential element is the voice of the singer.

Donizetti and his colleagues tailored their music for specific performers since they believed that opera’s most important element was the singer. They also developed traditional musical structures that they frequently used that streamlined the process of creating new operas. We will discuss these later this month. In the meantime, these videos of conversations between conductor Richard Bonynge, soprano Joan Sutherland, tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne talking bel canto are incredible. Not sure there is anything better than great singers talking about singing. Part 2 can be found here.

Today we will sample a bit of what’s to come this month, where we will go into each opera in detail every Sunday. This month is not going to be short on the drama!

Speaking of drama, let’s listen to “Figlia impura di Bolena,” from the opera Maria Stuarda. The opera’s most famous moment is not necessarily an aria or even a duet, but a dramatic sequence of recitatives during which Maria and the Queen confront one another (this meeting never took place in real life, but it makes for some good opera). Queen Maria Stuarda insults Queen Elisabetta, calling her a whore and the impure daughter of Anne Boleyn. This makes Elisabetta mad as hell, who eventually sentences Maria to death. 

You will notice in this clip and those to follow, that there is a total commitment to the characters from these singers. Not every note sounds beautiful, but that's because these singers have committed to interpreting the character and channeling what their voices can do in crafting the scene. Not sure there is anything more exciting than an artist taking these types of creative risks.

🎧 Listening Example (3 minute listen): “Figlia impura di Bolena” (“Impure daughter of Boleyn”) from Maria Stuarda sung here by Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer & American soprano, Shirley Verrett [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]

“Impure daughter of Boleyn, do you speak of dishonor?
Prostitute — unworthy and obscene, I blush for you.
The throne of England is sullied by your feet, vile bastard!”

The Tudor trilogy is three operas about Elizabeth I's life and times in the bel canto style. English monarch history fascinated Donizetti and audiences in Donizetti’s time, with many different operas being written based on these characters. Why is that? In the first half of the 19th century, Italy was a divided country, and it’s not a surprise that a composer like Donizetti was attracted to stories of Tudor England. Even today, if you look at movies and TV shows, we clearly still have this obsession with this period in history, including The Tudors, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Elizabeth.

When you listen this month, you might find that Donizetti’s music may seem stylistically the same when you go from one opera to another. But if you listen closely, you will notice that he manages to capture each queen’s particular circumstances in an incredibly subtle way. Every vocal run, or note even, is inspired by an emotion the character is trying to express.


Anna Bolena (1830)

Anna Bolena is a tragic opera and the story 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 get rid of her, he devises a plan to accuse her of treason and have her executed. Anne Boleyn is the mother of the future Queen Elizabeth.

🎧 Listening Example (6 minute listen): “Al dolce guidami” from Anna Bolena, sung here by American-born Greek soprano, Maria Callas

Guide me to the sweet mansion of my birth,
to the green plane-trees to the quiet river,
that still murmers with our sighs.
There, I forget the streams of anguish,
give me back one day of my early years,
just one day of our love.

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An incredibly intense moment requires some serious chest notes for the character Anna Bolena just before she goes into the aria “Coppia Iniqua” in Act 2. Here’s a fun excerpt including Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, Vasso Papantoniou, Elena Souliotis, and Marisa Galvany—all singing the same passage.

Maria Stuarda (1834)

Maria Stuarda is the second of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy, the drama focusing on the rivalry between Mary Stuart and Anna Bolena’s daughter Elizabeth I. This opera explores the final days and the execution of Marie Queen of Scotts.

Maria Callas and Leyla Gencer started a Donizetti Renaissance in the 1950s. We will be sharing more about Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer in future posts as she is less well-known but one of our favorites.

🎧 Listening Example (7 minute listen): “D’un cor che muore” from Maria Stuarda, sung here by soprano Leyla Gencer [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]

🎧 Listening Example (5 minute listen): “Ah! rimiro il bel sembiante” from Maria Stuarda, sung here by Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti (and French bass-baritone Roger Soyer)

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Roberto Devereux (1837)

The opera opens with an overture featuring the tune of “God Save the Queen.” The last in the trilogy, the opera Roberto Devereux portrays the sad relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. It is about the end of Elizabeth’s life where she is tired of the facade of royalty and nobility and she doesn’t want it anymore. The role of Elizabeth is notoriously difficult. The American soprano Beverly Sills once said it took five years off her career.

🎧 Listening Example (9 minute listen): “Bagnato il sen di lagrime” from Roberto Devereux, sung here by Mexican tenor Javier Camarena

After the American soprano Beverly Sills took these three roles on at New York City Opera in the 1970s, the only other soprano to tackle all three of the Donizetti queens in one season in New York was the American-Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky (who sang all three at The Metropolitan Opera during the 2015-2016 season). Beverly Sills called this her finest achievement and the people agreed with her. She was on the cover of Time in November 1971.

What’s up next?

Anna Bolena—the first of Donizetti’s Tudor Queens Trilogy. Set in Tudor England, get ready for power and passion to rule all.

“See” you Sunday!

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FURTHER STUDY

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If you’re not a paid subscriber, here’s what you missed last month:

  1. Rossini, the master of serious opera & going out on a high note

  2. Rossini Listening Session where we talked about (and listened to) Tandredi and Zelmira

  3. Rossini Wrap-up where we brought it all together