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More Than a Pretty Tune

It’s almost impossible to attend a Donizetti opera and not be tempted to exit the theater whistling one or another of his tunes. The beguiling beauty of these melodies, so abundantly distributed throughout Anna Bolena, can make each one seem to be an end in itself. That’s the line of thinking that led to so many of his operas not being taken seriously in the days when bel canto was trivialized as a passing “interlude” before the age of Verdi and Wagner dawned.

But Donizetti’s breakthrough in works like Anna Bolena is rooted in a keenly theatrical sensibility. In the score’s most innovative moments, he uses melody to intensify the larger dramatic context and to shed light on his characters. Here are a few especially effective examples to notice:

  • After Anne’s first entrance, as Smeton sings his (or her, since this is a trousers role) romance, we’re almost lulled into the mood of stereotypical bel canto, but Donizetti rudely breaks it off, thus underlining the dissonance between Anne’s memory of the possibility of love in the past and her present unhappiness. As a further irony here, Smeton is using his role as court musician to channel his own hidden feelings for the Queen, which will soon lead to her undoing.
  • The duet in act two between Anne and Jane builds on a principle of contrasting music for each of the women and between melody and dramatic accompanied recitative, until the two voices are at last joined as Anne forgives her rival.
  • In the complex final scene, Anne has a string of arias as she drifts through a series of mental states and loses herself in an idyllic dream of youthful love and then in a vision of peace (to a variation on the tune “Home, Sweet Home,” which had been published less than a decade before). But her delirium alternates with lucidity, and the real world intrudes in the form of aggressive march music. The effect is of an extended interior monologue that homes in on the emotional truths of Anne’s final moments. So often perceived as the epitome of surface beauty and artifice, in Donizetti’s hands bel canto becomes the instrument for unmasking real feelings and hence the agent of drama.


—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.

Anna Bolena, starring Sondra Radvanovsky in her role debut, begins performances September 15 in the Kennedy Center Opera House.