Poor Ann Boleyn. Has a historical character ever been beheaded so many times on stage and screen?
There is something tragic, and a little pathetic, about her story. She was a charming and beautiful young girl who caught the eye of Henry VIII. She demanded that the king annul his marriage to Queen Catherine and marry her before dispensing her favors. It was this annulment and subsequent marriage that caused Henry’s break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. She was decapitated on patently trumped-up charges, after only three years of marriage, when she failed to produce a son.
But she had the last laugh. As the mother of Elizabeth I, her influence reached far beyond the grave.
Donizetti wrote three operas based on the stories of three Tudor queens. Maria Stuarda is about Mary, Queen of Scots, and Roberto Devereux about the ill-fated romance between Elizabeth I and her favorite courtier. Anna Bolena is the first in the series.
“We’re producing them in reverse,” says Steven Lawless, director of Anna Bolena. “In 2005, Karen Stone [who was in charge of the Dallas Opera at the time] asked me to start the project. We would do one a year and then all three in a single weekend."
“The composer clearly intended these operas to be a cycle," he says. "He writes similar music for the continuing characters in all three. He writes for them with wit-tinged irony. It is fictionalized reality.”
It is a challenge to present such well-known characters. Showtime presented a grossly overproduced and sex-laden series called The Tudors, and everyone from Helen Mirren to Bette Davis to Cate Blanchett has portrayed Elizabeth on the screen.
Donizetti didn’t have all of this when he was creating his characters musically. In fact, 19th-century Italian audiences, Catholic to the core, saw Elizabeth as a heretic and the whole break with the church that Anna caused was considered a sin against God.
“The concept of a virgin queen would have struck them as ridiculous,” Lawless adds.
Lawless rightly points out that we don’t really know what goes on in royal lives. Even in today’s tell-all society, the story of Charles and Diana is clouded by all of the hype. But hype about the royals is nothing new.
“Henry put out a lot of propaganda at the time. Jane good, Anna bad,” Lawless says, referring to “good” Jane Seymour, who followed “bad” Anna into Henry’s bed and heart.
“One thing runs through all three operas,” Lawless says. “There is a price you pay for ambition and everyone who aims for the crown will eventually find it to be hollow.”
This is a lesson that Boris Godunov will also discover when Dallas Opera presents that opera in April, 2011.
Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian tackles the many stratospheric difficulties of the title role. Tenor Stephen Costello, who impressed in Moby-Dick, is Lord Percy. Jane Seymour is sung by American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. The cad himself, King Henry, is sung by Brooklyn-born bass Oren Gradus, who is familiar to Metropolitan Opera audiences. Dallas Opera’s Music Director, Graeme Jenkins, conducts.