Having just witnessed the execution of his childhood crush, Anne Boleyn, and four of her accused lovers, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote in his prison cell in the Tower of London:These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.Or in English, “it thunders ’round the Throne.” It certainly did in the court of Henry VIII, a king whose reign was so bloody and so matrimonially diverse that a schoolboy rhyme is needed to remember what happened to each of his six wives (“divorced, beheaded, died/divorced, beheaded, survived.”)And it thundered ’round the stage at the Metropolitan Opera last Thursday, where Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena—or in English, Anne Boleyn—has returned. It’s a revival of the 2011 Sir David McVicar production, but it’s also something new: part of a trilogy of Donizetti’s three Tudor Queen operas that the Met will stage this season. The other two are Maria Stuarda (Mary, Queen of Scots) and Roberto Devereux (about Elizabeth I). Sondra Radvanovsky will star as the queen in all three–the soprano challenge of a career. Based on her performance in the first opera, she’s up to it: A virtuousic singer and captivatingly intense actress, Radvanovsky shone throughout.The Met drew a noticeably younger crowd than usual, with 40 percent of it under 40 (by my rough estimate), a stunning showing for any production not titled La Boheme. This almost certainly has something to do with the vogue the Tudors are enjoying right now, with popular works spanning the range of high-, middle-, and low-brow: from Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series and the miniseries and two plays based upon it (I reviewed the plays in this space in May), to Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl series, to Showtime’s The Tudors.In truth, these is just the latest in a long line of works on the Tudors that runs from their own self-dramatizing time up until the present, and includes luminaries like Shakespeare, Schiller, and Donizetti. The Anne Boleyn story has captivated artists again and again because of a paradox of knowledge and mystery: we know so many details of Anne’s public downfall, but there is ground for endless debate on what really happened in private. Anne was accused of multiple adulteries, including incest with her brother. Was she framed? Was she guilty of some, but not all? Or all? Certainly she had enough drunken, hot-blooded young men running around her quarters at odd hours to raise suspicions. And the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton, just as humpbacked as legend said he was, in Leicester in 2012 should serve as a caution against dismissing lurid stories from a lurid era.Yet the court gossip, politics, and religion—complications that can often distort the source material—are mainly distractions to Donizetti: He’s trying to tell a love story. In his simplified telling, Anne was, while physically faithful to King Henry, still in love with (one of) her previous boyfriends, Lord Richard (“Riccardo”; historically, Henry) Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland. This interpretation is decidedly a minority report; in real life, Percy was so little a threat that Henry VIII, who was conducting a purge of Anne’s supposed lovers, didn’t think he was worth executing.And as a Romantic drama, the pared-down concept works splendidly. Anne remains chaste despite her longing for Percy, and is cruelly done to death, along with Percy and her brother, Lord Rochefort (in this telling, Percy’s best friend and confidant—and nothing more) by the King. Donizetti also eliminates every other alleged lover but one, a court page named Smeaton, whom Henry tortures into confessing an affair with Anne, in order to procure her unjust execution. The lines are much simpler than in the history books; leave it to the Tudors to bequeath us a story so complicated and salacious it needs to be sexed down to work as opera.Donizetti’s composition demonstrates the limitations of and glories of bel canto opera—that period in the early 19th century during which Italian opera focused almost exclusively on the singers, resulting in highly embellished, frequently gorgeous, but often ultimately unnatural tunes, plot, and pacing. Many of Donizetti’s tunes stuck in my head for days afterward—but oh, one wishes for a little more revision. Donizetti wrote notoriously fast, and at times the music seemed not fully thought through. For instance, when Anne is awaiting execution, she breaks from a reverie, exclaiming, “What is that gloomy sound?”—whereupon we hear an inappropriately upbeat military march, instead of funereal drums.The first act, which is largely exposition, drags at points. It’s packed with arias that linger over-long on plot points in order to allow the artists to show off. We meet Anne, learn that she’s distressed about her husband’s increasing distance, which because she was once been on the other side of this equation, she recognizes as signaling the presence of a new mistress. We see Henry wooing the new girl, Anne’s lady-in-waiting Jane (Giovanna) Seymour, sung by mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who has already begun to regret betraying her mistress and to sense the danger in being loved by the King. Anne and Henry quarrel. Etc. Some of the responsibility for the pacing probably belongs to conductor Marco Armiliato, who could keep things moving more briskly, but a lot of it belongs to the composer. Only at the end, as Henry bursts in on Percy and Smeaton wooing Anne (unsuccessfully) and misconstrues the situation, do things really get going.But the second act is glorious, and elevates this work from a pleasant but not particularly stand-out way to spend an evening to a Romantic masterpiece that leaves you saying: no wonder it launched Donizetti’s career. The act is dominated by three spectacular set-pieces. In the first, a trembling Jane Seymour visits Anne, who’s imprisoned in her own apartments and calling down curses on the woman who supplanted her, unaware that it’s Jane. Overcome, Seymour confesses. At first, Anne’s reaction is what you’d expect, and a vocal duel of violent intensity commences. But slowly, Anne starts to realize that the true tormentor—both hers and Jane’s—is Henry, and by the end of the scene the two women are united in a pathos-filled duet. The question of whether to blame (and curse, a significant decision in operatic conventions) both Jane and Henry or Henry alone will bedevil Anne until the end of the opera.Here, finally, Donizetti’s temptation to dwell on the moment finally works, as he wrings every ounce of passion out of the dramatic concept of this confrontation. And credit is due to McVicar, set designer Robert Jones, and costume designer Jenny Tiramani: the staging, set, and costumes were all coordinated expertly to drive home the power of the scene. When we first met Anne, in the first act, she was in a scarlet dress—a color that, while a favorite of the Tudor court, is not coincidentally the color of both blood and adultery. (Anne, of course had stolen Henry away from Katherine of Aragon, a fact the libretto alludes to at key moments.) Meanwhile, the king and nobles, including Jane, are in black, while pages wear white. Then as the opera progresses, Anne wears less and less red—eventually just a band around her dress, at the end of Act I. By the second act, she and Jane are both in black dresses—but her grand canopy bed, over and around which they argue, is painted top-to-bottom in blood red, and dressed in red sheets. They are arguing both literally and figuratively over the King’s marriage bed, and whoever lies there will be both an adulterer—Henry has gone through enough wives at this point to taint both Anne and Jane—and in blood peril.To heighten the effect, McVicar and Jones have compressed the Met’s enormous stage, setting the bedroom in a partitioned-off half of it, with a ceiling rather than the high, open fly space. When Radvanovsky, trembling with fury and fear from head to toe, stands before the bed, looking out to the audience with fixed but tear-filled gaze, and sings her denunciation, “sul guancial del regio letto“, it’s one of the highest points of the evening. After this scene, both Henry and Jane will appear in reds and golds, while Anne’s costumes move toward martyr’s white as the libretto paints her increasingly as the innocent victim.The second of these immensely effective scenes takes place in front of the council chambers. It shows something I have been longing to see ever since I started to study Tudor dramas: two of Henry’s victims confront their murderer. In stirring verse set to soaring music, Anne denounces him as tyrant and a liar. And against Henry’s accusation that she slept with Smeaton (whom Henry has had tortured into confessing), she replies:Cease
with this vile accusation
I claim back my dignity,and rather than Smeton, I loudly decry you, Sire,
as a seducerAnne is joined in her denunciation by Percy, sung by understudy Taylor Strayton in place of the ill Stephen Costello on the evening I attended. (Strayton turned in the kind of performance that can make a career—clear, intense singing and energetic, effective acting.) The tension crackles throughout this long scene, and yet again, Donizetti’s temptation to dwell on a matter of Romantic interest pays off. The Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov both physically embodies Henry and captures his menace vocally in his rich, threatening tones. While religion and politics don’t feature prominently in this Anne Boleyn story (unlike many written in our time), it’s hard not to think of their influence here: what else besides Henry’s status as a heretic would have allowed Donizetti and his librettist Felici Romani get a full-throated denunciation of a sitting king as a perverter of justice past the censors?It’s immensely emotionally satisfying, even if it never happened. In real life, Henry’s courtiers, subjects, and wives almost always stuck to the Big Lie of his God-anointed goodness throughout their show trials and executions. “If you want to learn about Stalin,” Alan Bennett noted in The History Boys, “study Henry VIII.”Finally, there’s the mad scene. Awaiting her execution, Anna slowly loses touch with reality, and begins to hallucinate. At first, it’s her wedding day with Henry, and she’s hiding from Percy; then, she flashes even further back, to her childhood, when she and Percy were blissfully in love. Her white prisoner’s shift is simultaneously a wedding gown and a martyr’s robe. Only slowly does she come back into touch with her impending doom. It’s extremely affecting—and extremely effective. While there were precedents in both Handel and Mozart, this was the first of the mad scenes that became a staple of Romantic-era opera, reaching an apogee in Donizetti’s own Lucia di Lammermoor, which the Met staged last year. They are the great test of a bel canto soprano, and Radvanovsky pulls hers off perfectly, her voice soaring, indulging in trills and runs that amplify the pathetic contrast between her delusional joy and dismal fate, giving full rein to Romantic hysterics that, in the heightened atmosphere of an impending execution, are fully warranted.There are no conceptual difficulties with this production; none of the interpretational challenges that the Met’s Otello posed to the audience. The sets and costumes are historical and conventional—which is the right call. The Tudor period, as Holbein preserved it for us and Wolf Hall recently brought to life, was gorgeously costumed; there probably would be a riot if the Met did a Tudor drama in a modern or post-apocalyptic setting right now. And in set as well as costume, the opera held its own—despite the challenge from TV shows, which can be filmed in the actual Tower of London, if their producers so wish. At the beginning of the mad scene, the council chamber door, in front of which the King and Anne had been arguing, rises up, becoming the second story of the Tower of London, while below, in front of a loose replica of Traitor’s Gate, Anne is prepared for execution by her ladies-in-waiting. At the end, when Anne is taken in and just before the curtain falls, the doors above open and a black-hooded, sword-wielding executioner appears. It’s chilling and arresting—and it’s reassuring to know opera still has some tricks up its sleeve.Better yet, there’s more to come: Maria Stuarda opens this January, and Roberto Devereux this March. The queen is dead. Long live the queens.Anna Bolena at the Metropolitan Opera, Oct. 5, 9, 13, and Jan 5 & 9. Tickets $27-480.