What moves me

The needle scene

ANNA BOLENA ushered in a new era in opera. Henceforth, works based on real events tended to stick close to the historical facts. Jörg Königsdorf on the first biopic in the history of the genre

As 1830 drew to its close Gaetano Donizetti should by rights have been in seventh heaven. His 30th opera had just taken a demanding Milan public by storm. Surely ANNA BOLENA would give the 33-year-old composer from Bergamo his breakthrough.

Yet instead of basking in the plaudits, Donizetti starts to tinker with the finished work even as the run progresses, altering a small but significant detail: where the original libretto had the heroine dropping dead on stage – the standard way of portraying death in opera -, Donizetti now has prison wardens hustling the Queen and her co-accused off to the scaffold.

So, why did Donizetti alter the ending? He was picking up on a shift in the expectations of his audience. He realised he had to stick to the facts if he was bringing a famous – and fateful – slice of history to the stage. As intolerable as it would be to leave the assassination attempt out of a film about Rudi Dutschke, so Donizetti and his librettist Felice Romani could not get away with drawing a veil over Henry VIII’s beheading of his second wife. That this only dawned on a composer of Donizetti’s experience during and in the aftermath of the premiere shows just how cutting-edge this claim to historiographical accuracy must have been. Audiences up to then had always accepted the prettification of grim realities. But here was a material whose facts were well known and thus now had to be portrayed.

This makes ANNA BOLENA arguably the first biopic in the history of opera. Only a few years before, Gioacchino Rossini had bowed to audience sensibilities and penned alternative versions featuring happier endings to tragic operas such as OTELLO and TANCREDI. Now things had moved on to the extent that audiences would have felt duped if Anna had been pardoned.

This marks a paradigm shift in opera. Instead of the »lieto fine«, the reconciliation of all parties, which no one took seriously anyway after decades of war, strife and terror across Europe, we now have an identification with the victim, especially where the perpetrator is another one of those umpteen feudal overlords of yore. Not for nothing does the premiere fall in a year marked by uprisings from Poland to France against absolutist monarchs and foreign rule.

Donizetti’s ANNA BOLENA is a »true« story, gory and moving in equal measure. It caters both to the sombre zeitgeist and to a widespread desire for romance in art. But the cornerstone of its success is Donizetti’s musical language, which draws audiences in to the emotions and fate of the characters. In short, ANNA BOLENA’s success is not so much down to the great bel canto arias themselves, which are not lacking, as due to the primacy given to the effect of the spectacle as a whole. The music amplifies and intensifies the drama of the words instead of using the lyrics as a springboard for its own glorification.

One small step for ANNA BOLENA, then, but a giant leap for opera towards musical theatre, with music kicking open the door to a new emotional realism. Thrilling vocal acrobatics now take second place to psychological character portrayals conveyed by a music wholly devoted to the impact of the theatrical drama. We are given a king at the mercy of his urges, Anna’s rival (Giovanna) who wants the best for everyone and Smeaton, Anna’s lovesick page. In this tangle of passions, the tragedy unfolds naturally.

We are particularly moved by the heartfelt cantilenas of the innocent Anna, which establish her as the queen of our hearts. And the brutality underpinning the story is as topical today as it was almost 200 years ago.

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