What could be a better fit for opera than the high tragedy that was Anne Boleyn’s life? Of course, nearly any wife of the self-centered King Henry VIII would make a good story and has been the topic of several movies and mini-series, but consider that it was for Anne that King Henry VIII split his country in half over religion. PBS “Great Performances: Anna Bolena” is an engrossing Italian spin on the English aristocratic court drama that favors thwarted romance over historic accuracy. “Great Performances at the Met” premieres on PBS, Friday, 20 January 2012, at 9 p.m. ET. Check local listings.
After Friday, it will be available on demand on the PBS website.
Because of Henry’s desire to leave his first wife, Catherine of Aragon–his own brother’s widow–the English court turned away from the authority of the Vatican and Catholicism, creating its own church that was headed by the king. Henry had already taken Anne’s older sister, Mary, as his mistress, but Anne didn’t want to be a fling.
Anne had twice before been involved in marriage arrangements, but both times, the arrangements fell through. The last was her betrothal to Henry Percy. There are rumors that it was King Henry’s own interest in Anne that hindered this particular match.
- Henry Percy ends his pursuit of Anne Boleyn
What is known is that Henry was definitely in pursuit of Anne by 1526, he began attempting to annul his marriage to Catherine in 1527 and Anne and Henry didn’t marry until January 1533. That was well before Henry was divorced from Catherine–it was in May of that year that the archbishop would declare the marriage invalid.
Yes, that’s what happens when men start rationalizing their desires, and sons are more important than daughters. Henry VIII was the male chauvinist pig that went through wives and courtiers like a boar on a truffle rampage.
Gaetano Donizetti’s 1830 opera, “Anna Bolena” begins in 1536. Anne and Henry have been married for three years. Anne has been pregnant three times, but only the first child lived–Elizabeth. Anna first appears with a thin, pale, red-haired girl. This we know is the future of England, one of bright hope and culture, but Henry couldn’t see past her sex. He needed a son.
Donizetti’s opera shows us where Elizabeth got that steely strength, passion and intelligence. Not from her fickle father, but from her strong-willed mother. Soprano Anna Netrebko sings this punishing score with regal authority and fiery passion. The palate is dark and severe–mostly blacks and whites (scenic design by Robert Jones and lighting by Tony Award-winning Paule Constable).
Henry has already picked Anna’s replacement, Jane Seymour–or Giovanna (Ekaterina Gubanova). If you described Netrebko and Gubanova, you’d use similar adjectives. As costumed for this production (by Olivier Award-winning Jenny Tiramani), they both are sturdy women, with long thick, straight dark brown hair, luminous pale skin and dark brown eyes, are at times seen in similar black dresses with white head dresses. Such casting of similar types makes it seems as if women and wives were as interchangeable as cattle and just as easily butchered.
Felice Romani took some artistic liberties with history in his libretto. Here Henry Percy is Riccardo (Stephen Costello), our heroic tenor. He returns to his former love, wishing to have her heart again. She nobly refuses, but our evil Enrico (Ildar Abdrazakov) or Henry VIII uses this suggestion of an affair to level an accusation. He throws in the poor musician Mark Smeaton and Anna’s own brother Lord Rocheford (baritone Keith Miller) to make this smear campaign particularly sleazy.
Anna is accused of adultery and incest. Smeaton, played by mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, is tortured and confesses. Romani diverges from history here; otherwise we wouldn’t have a hero. Henry Percy declares his undying love for Anna.
- Henry Algernon Percy, Sixth Earl of Northumberland
In real life, Henry Percy was on the committee that listened and judged Anne Boleyn, but the real Henry Percy grew ill and left the room. He outlived Anne by one year, dying in 1537; his widow, Mary Talbot, who hated him, lived until 1572.
Leave historical reality behind and imagine a woman, married not to her first love, but to a fickle king, realizing true love as her brother and a hapless musician suffer in the king’s evil plot to get another divorce. It makes divorce American-style seem more civilized. “Anna Bolena” premieres on Friday, 20 January 2012 on PBS and will be available on demand there after. Check local listings.