By Lynne Gray, PhD
Donizetti’s “Three Queens” Week
For this week’s free streams from the Met, we will be able to see all three of Donizetti’s great “Queens” operas in succession. The Three Queens are all notoriously difficult to sing – each a bel canto Mt. Everest to climb – and a diva who succeeds in singing them all in a single season is justly admired for the rest of her life. In our lifetimes, few have achieved it – notably, Beverly Sills, and most recently, Sondra Radvanovsky. For this run, we will see Sondra only as the third Queen – Elizabeth, but Netrebko and DiDonato as Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda both turn in virtuoso performances. The trilogy involves three of the most extraordinary women in history: the passionate Anne Boleyn, the proud Mary Stuart, and the mighty Queen Elizabeth I at the very end of her long reign. Each role is a monumental challenge for any diva, requiring her to have a combination of glorious sound with masterful technique and incomparable pathos.
The stories, familiar from both actual history and multiple literary fabrications, are far apart chronologically. Each, however, culminates in a dramatic execution — Anne Boleyn’s in 1536 at the behest of her husband, Henry VIII, for alleged infidelity; Mary Stuart’s in 1587 because of the threat she posed to Elizabeth I’s rule; and Robert Devereux’s in 1601, for treason. At the heart of each plot is at least one love triangle – sometimes more (whether they are rooted in actual history or not).
Of course, the bel canto Italian opera version of Tudor history is a little different from what you will find in the history books, and it is not just because Henry VIII is called “Enrico,” and Jane Seymour is called “Giovanna,” or because the musical landscape involves very few lutes. The operas tend to play down the Machiavellian politics of the times in favor of the personal dramas and the love triangles, real or imagined. They just seem make a better story!
Hope you will be able to take advantage of this rare opportunity to see all 3 Queens in just one week!
Monday, April 27
Donizetti’s Anna Bolena ~ 3Hrs and 10Mins
Starring Anna Netrebko, Ekaterina Gubanova, Stephen Costello, and Ildar Abdrazakov, conducted by Marco Armiliato. From October 15, 2011.
David McVicar’s brooding production captures the high drama of this famous piece of (slightly embellished) British history, told as only Donizetti and his librettist, Felice Romani could. Anna Netrebko sings Queen Anne Boleyn, trapped in a now unhappy marriage to King Henry VIII (Ildar Abdrazakov) whose roving eye has already settled on another woman—Jane Seymour (Ekaterina Gubanova). Jane has been Anna’s loyal Lady in Waiting, but now is her unwitting rival. Then add Anna’s first love, Lord Percy (Stephen Costello), into the mix – because he has been recalled from exile (somewhat suspiciously) and has just returned to the court. It is clearly a formula for disaster – meaning a very dramatic ending with lots of deaths!
The opera begins in the Queen’s apartments where courtiers are gossiping that the Queen’s star is already setting because of her failure to produce a male heir and the fact that the fickle Henry’s heart has moved on to another flame. Jane Seymour (Giovanna in Italian) has been summoned by the Queen, as has Smeaton, her page, who is trying – unsuccessfully – to cheer her by playing the harp. She sighs to herself that she is unhappy in her Queenly splendor and wishes now that she had not betrayed her first love for her ambition to be Queen.
Alone, Jane is guilt-ridden over her betrayal of the Queen, and disturbed by Henry’s ever-increasing threats concerning Anne’s future. Henry himself enters, however, and tells her that soon she will have no rival and will have husband, throne and scepter. (He is obviously up to no good!)
The next day, Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort is surprised to encounter Lord Percy (Anne’s early love) who has apparently been called out of exile by the King. Percy asks if it is true that the Queen is unhappy, and that the King’s heart has changed. Rochefort answers enigmatically that love is never content. When Henry returns with a hunting party, he greets Anne coolly, and then is grimly amused to see her (and Percy’s) obvious discomfort at having to be together at Court. He orders his councilor, Hervey, to spy on every move of Anne and Percy.
Smeaton, who also secretly loves Anne, has taken a locket with her picture in it, but is now trying surreptitiously to return it. He hides as Anne and her brother, Rochefort, enter the room arguing. Rochefort is begging Anne to see Percy because she is the only one who might be able to convince him to leave the castle and prevent any further danger to them all. When she finally agrees, and then insists to Percy that he must leave and never see her again, Percy becomes distraught and draws his sword to kill himself. Misunderstanding, Smeaton jumps out from hiding to protect Anne. And, of course, who should enter at that very moment but the King. Seeing the drawn swords, and taking the locket, he calls his courtiers and accuses Anne, Smeaton, Percy and Rochefort of adulterous conspiracy – which is treason – and has them all dragged off.
By Act 2, Anne is imprisoned in her apartments where her ladies try to tell her to put her faith in God since He knows she is innocent. Hervey enters and summons the ladies to testify before the Council of Peers. Jane comes in to beg the Queen to plead guilty and confess because it is the only way to avoid a death sentence. Anne replies that she will not buy her life with infamy and prays that the next Queen will wear a much-deserved crown of thorns. When Jane confesses that it is she who will be Anne’s successor, Anne first flies into a rage and dismisses her, but then suddenly feels only sympathy and says it is the king, not Jane who has really betrayed her.
Meanwhile, Smeaton has been tortured and has confessed to being the queen’s lover, believing that his false confession will save her life. When Anne and Percy are brought before the council, Anne says she is ready to die but begs to be spared the horror of a public trial. Percy, trying to save her, blurts out that he and Anne were secretly married before she wed Henry. When she is asked, Anne is unable to deny it. This, of course, has the opposite of the intended effect and they are both led away to the Tower while Jane, Anne’s ladies and the courtiers all beg the king to have mercy on Anne. He summarily dismisses them all.
In the tower of London, Hervey comes to tell Rochefort and Percy that they have been pardoned by the king – but Anne has not. Upon hearing that, they both choose to die with Anne. Meanwhile, Anne has been slipping in and out of madness in her cell. In her final scene she imagines her wedding to Henry, but then imagines she sees Percy and asks him to take her back to their childhood home – Donizetti even weaves in some of the melody of the familiar “Home Sweet Home” into all of this heart rending agony. Anne’s final famous aria “Coppia iniqua” (iniquitous couple) is a testament both to her fury and to her final grace:
“There lacks, alas, there lacks only the blood of Anna
To complete the crime, and it will be spilt.
False couple, I do not call down
The final vengeance in this terrible hour;
I go down into the open grave which awaits me
With pardon on my lips,
May they obtain mercy and favour for me
In the presence of a God of pity.”
1. Sondra Radvanovsky in her royal identities: From left, Anne Boleyn in “Anna Bolena”; Mary, Queen of Scots, in “Maria Stuarda”; and Elizabeth I in “Roberto Devereux.” Credit…From Left: Karsten Moran for The New York Times; Todd Heisler/The New York Times; Kristian Schuller/Metropolitan Opera
2. Anna Netrebko as Anna Bolena at the Met in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
3. Ildar Abdrazakov as Enrico, Anna Netrebko as the title character, and Keith Miller as Lord Rochefort in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
4. Anna Netrebko (standing) and Ekaterina Gubanova as Jane Seymour in “Anna Bolena” at the Metropolitan Opera. Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
5. Anna Netrebko as Anne and Stephen Costello as Percy in “Anna Bolena” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
6. Anna Netrebko singing “Coppia iniqua” in “Anna Bolena” at the Metropolitan Opera. Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.