A woman in a crown stares defiantly at camera

Cheat Sheet: Anna Bolena

Everything you need to know about the opera about Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s most famous wife.

Who was the composer?

Gaetano Donizetti.

A line portrait of Gaetano Donizetti

A lithograph portrait of Gaetano Donizetti by Joseph Kriehuber, 1842. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Copyright: public domain.

Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti was one of the most prominent Italian composers working during the first half of the 19th century. He was an expert in the bel canto style.

Born into a poor family with no musical talent, Donizetti was lucky to attract the attention of a local composer, who trained him in the basics of music. He graduated and moved on to the Bologna Academy where he wrote his first opera at the age of 19.

A move to Naples at age 24 began a lifetime of success — he would stay in that city for most of his life, as resident composer of the Teatro di San Carlo. The tragedy Anna Bolena was his first international success, quickly followed by the comedy The Elixir of Love. He was a prolific composer, writing somewhere between 65 and 70 operas by the time of his death. (He also composed 28 cantatas and 19 string quartets.)

In 1843, Donizetti began to show symptoms of syphilis and depression. By 1846, he was moved to an institution for the mentally ill and traveled home to die in his birth town in April 1848.

Of Donizetti’s most famous works, The Elixir of Love, Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Pasquale rank in the top 100 operas performed around the world today.

What happens in the story?

Henry VIII has grown tired of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and is seeing her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, in secret.

He plots to remove his wife from the throne, and tries to trap her by inviting the man she once loved back to court.

In this brutal world, can Anne’s innocence outweigh the King’s determination to be rid of her?

A portrait of Anne Boleyn

This portrait of Anne Boleyn is by an unknown English artist of the late 16th century, believed to be a copy of a lost work painted in the 1530s. It is held in the National Portrait Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Who are the main players?

Henry VIII - the King

Anne Boleyn - his second wife, after Henry exiled Catherine of Aragon

Jane Seymour - Anne’s lady-in-waiting and Henry VIII's third wife. She’s in love with the King and wracked with guilt.

Lord Percy - Anne’s first love

Smeaton - a court musician, in love with Anne

What’s the big hit?

‘Al dolce guidami’, Anne’s tender aria as she awaits her execution. It’s part of an extended scene, where Anna drifts from madness to reality in a string of difficult, emotional arias.

Something to listen out for

Donizetti breaks some conventions to make the music serve the drama, to powerful effect.

Listen out when Smeaton performs a romantic song for Anne in the first scene. When the romance starts to hit a little too close to home, Anne interrupts violently. The sudden break in the musical line is jarring, highlighting the differences between Anne’s happy memories and current unhappiness.

This production is…

...the first in a trilogy of new productions by director Davide Livermore (Aida). He'll direct all of Donizetti's Tudor Queens operas, including Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda.

It features detailed period-inspired costumes by designer Mariana Fracasso.

The set is composed of floor-to-ceiling LED panels. These allow for dynamic design, where traditional set pieces interplay with digital video content.

A little history

Donizetti was staying on the banks of Lake Como with celebrated soprano Guiditta Pasta while working on Anna Bolena.

He had a commission for Milan’s Teatro Carcano in hand, and a libretto by the famous Felice Romani.

Nineteenth century Italians were no less fascinated with the scandalous loves of Henry VIII than a modern audience. The subject was bound to be popular, but Donizetti managed to write music that ensured his first true success. (In just one month, too — he received the libretto on November 10 and put down his pen on December 10.)

It premiered in Milan 10 days later on December 20, 1830. Afterwards, Donizetti wrote to his wife: “A triumphal success, delirium, it seemed as though the public had gone mad.”

Guiditta Pasta was brilliant, and the opera’s success still depends on a powerhouse soprano.

The opera enjoyed a revival in the 1950s, as Maria Callas made it one of her most famous roles. Dame Joan Sutherland was also famous for her performance in the title role.

Conversation starters

  • Donizetti had a few major setbacks at the start of his career. On the opening night of his first staged work, the lead soprano refused to go on stage after suffering stage fright. The show went on with some major cuts.
  • A few days before his ninth opera premiered, the lead tenor died suddenly. Donizetti swiftly rewrote the part for a mezzo-soprano and the opera was a critical success.
  • Legend has it that Donizetti was writing Anna Bolena at Lake Como at the same time as his rival, Bellini, was writing La Sonnambula on the opposite shore. The two composers were both camped out on Italy’s famous lake with star sopranos in the autumn of 1830. They were each writing a commission for Teatro Carcano in Milan with a libretto by Romani, but the timing doesn’t quite match up for a fierce composing contest! Bellini didn’t premiere his opera until March the following year.

Anna Bolena

New to opera? Read our ultimate guide

The composer: Gaetano Donizetti. Italian. 19th century. Also famous for The Elixir of Love and Lucia di Lammermoor.

The music: Passionate melodies and acrobatic colaratura make this a masterclass of the bel canto period. In this time, 'beautiful singing' was paramount, and everything else took a back seat.

The big hit: 'Al dolce guidami', one of Anne's final arias. 

The setting: 1536 in the English Royal Court.

The history: This was the opera that made Donizetti a success. 

A quirky fact to impress your date: Donizetti wrote the score from start to finish in just one month.

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