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PRIMER | A Guide To Getting Ready For Donizetti’s Anna Bolena

By Matthew Timmermans on April 18, 2018

The first time the Canadian Opera Company mounted Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena in 1984, it starred one of the greatest bel canto sopranos of the 20th century, Dame Joan Sutherland! Now it will be revived with Sondra Radvanovsky, who some claim is the new reigning queen of bel canto.

Rarely performed, partly because the role of Anne Boleyn demands superior endurance, virtuosity, and dramatic intuition, Anna Bolena requires a true diva. At the risk of outing myself as an opera queen, it is for this reason that I love this opera. Often compared to La Divina Maria Callas, another of the greatest divas in the 20th-century, Giuditta Pasta created the role of Anna in 1830. One should not underestimate the impact that Pasta had on this role –– in fact, Donizetti composed the role for Pasta under her supervision! From its inception then, the diva has been integral to Bolena’s performance.

This is why I have focused this listening guide on some of the divas that have sung Anna. There is no definitive way to read this guide: You can either skip to your favourite singer or read from start to finish to get a taste of how this role has developed and changed. Let me know which diva is your favourite in the comments below!

Anna Bolena Rises from the Dead

Since its 20th-century revival in 1947, only the greatest sopranos have performed this role. In 1947, this was Sara Scuderi, who was about to end her long career. Although no recordings were made of her singing Anna, one can hear the beauty and refined skill of her singing preserved in other opera excerpts. When listening to Scuderi sing Tosca’s famous aria “Vissi d’Arte” at the age of 87, one can imagine how this voice might have sounded in its prime.

La Divina

  • Year: 1957
  • Label: EMI
  • Anna Bolena: Maria Callas
  • Enrico: Nicola Rossi-Lemeni
  • Giovanna: Giulietta Simionato
  • Percy: Gianni Raimondi
  • Conductor: Gianandrea Gavazzeni
  • Orchestra: Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan

In 1957, Bolena was revived at La Scala with Maria Callas at the height of her powers. This performance eclipsed any memory of Scuderi’s revival. Despite the poor quality of this early live recording, it preserves what many consider the greatest performance of the role. Callas is often compared to Pasta because of her compelling acting, distinct breaks between vocal registers, and impeccable virtuosity. Although we do not have footage of Callas performing the role, her vocal artistry was so visceral that one doesn’t need to see her to imagine how she might have acted on stage.

In the following excerpt of the Act I finale, Callas’ vocal inflections and musicality clearly indicate her rage and astonishment at Enrico’s accusation of her infidelity. The part sits comfortably in Callas’ range showing off her almost screechy top to her dark mezzo-ish bottom. Finally, we can also her impeccable coloratura sung at a breakneck speed in this final ensemble. I think the applause and cries of “brava” at the end of the recording speak to my point that Callas was simply breathtaking in this role:

  • Year: 1958
  • Label: Andromeda
  • Anna Bolena: Leyla Gencer
  • Enrico: Plinio Clabassi
  • Giovanna: Giulietta Simionato
  • Percy: Aldo Bertocci
  • Conductor: Gianandrea Gavazzeni
  • Orchestra: Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro della RAI di Milano

After Callas’ final run of Bolena at La Scala in 1958, Leyla Gencer was the next diva to sing the role in a radio broadcast by the RAI Milano. Rumoured to have been eclipsed by Callas’ shadow, Gencer was a Turkish soprano who is regretfully almost unheard of outside Europe. Despite these rumours, Gencer left us with several exciting live recordings of her as Anna. Like Callas, she was also a vocal actress commanding the stage with her emotive singing. We can hear this explicitly during her duet with Giulietta Simionato who plays Giovanna (she was also Giovanna in the same production with Callas the year before and Scuderi ten years before that).

At this point in the opera, Giovanna admits that she has been having an affair with Anna’s husband, Enrico. The two characters spar off in one of the most exciting scenes (or diva contests) in all opera. As you will hear, Gencer has a similarly grungy middle register like Callas, but with a more lyrical top, showing off some beautiful piannissimi high notes, which were her specialty. When it calls for rage, like Callas, Gencer has a powerful upper register which she uses to great effect in this duet:

The Second Callas?

  • Year: 1969
  • Label: Decca
  • Anna Bolena: Elena Souliotis
  • Enrico: Nicolai Ghiaurov
  • Giovanna: Marilyn Horne
  • Percy: John Alexander
  • Conductor: Silvio Varviso
  • Orchestra: Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Before prematurely retiring due to vocal strain, Elena Souliotis made such a stir in roles like Anna that she was rumoured to be “the Second Callas.” Lucky for us, of the few roles she recorded, Anna was one of them. Unfortunately in this studio recording, we can already hear her voice beginning to deteriorate (A 1966 live recording with tenor Plácido Domingo as Percy and the same cast captures her in much better form). Despite this, Souliotis manages to show glimpses of her previous glory. Her distinctive voice once again brings to mind the rare mezzo-soprano quality of the other divas who have sung this role. It is not surprising that she was compared with Callas given her piercing top, her sometimes unattractive sounding voice, and her precise coloratura.

In the following clip, we hear the quartet when Bolena sees her long-lost love Percy for the first time in several years, during which time she lusted for power and married the King, Enrico. We can hear Anna’s apprehension in the way Souliotis sings her first line and then soars over her colleagues throughout the ensemble. In this recording, she is joined by the versatile bass Nicolai Ghiaurov and the often-underrated bel canto tenor John Alexander. Although she is not in this excerpt, mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne makes a surprisingly disappointing Giovanna on this recording. Overall, she sounds uncomfortable in the role’s high tessitura, written for a soprano rather than a mezzo-soprano.


A Lighter Shade of Anna

  • Year: 1972
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • Anna Bolena: Beverly Sills
  • Enrico: Paul Plishka
  • Giovanna: Shirley Verrett
  • Percy: Stuart Burrows
  • Conductor: Julius Rudel
  • Orchestra: London Symphony Orchestra and the John Alldis Choir

One of the most controversial interpreters of the three queens (Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Elisabetta I) was the incredibly versatile American soprano Beverly Sills. Many critics believe that Sills destroyed her voice singing these roles because they were too dramatically demanding for her. Despite the obvious deterioration heard in her later recordings, as Anna Bolena, Sills gives a dramatically compelling interpretation of the wronged queen. Unlike the dark mezzo-sopranoesque colour of the previous queens discussed, Sills has a brighter timbre and a very high extension. Her characterisation’s strength is its portrayal of Anna’s innocence and femininity.

In the except below of Anna’s goodbye to life, you can hear how Sills forces her voice in the bottom registry in an almost painful sounding way. Sills’ vocal discomfort evokes the distress of the character. Another of my favourite aspects about this recording is Sills’ ornamentation. At this time, ornamenting repeats in Donizetti’s music was almost unheard of, especially in an opera as rarely heard as Bolena. What some critics deemed overindulgent at the time, Sills heavily ornaments each repeat, as you will hear below, displaying her virtuosity, and amplifying the emotions felt by the character. In addition to Sills, this recording boasts the splendid soprano-like Giovanna of mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett as well as the positively evil sounding Paul Plishka as Enrico.

La Stupenda

  • Year: 1988
  • Label: London
  • Anna Bolena: Dame Joan Sutherland
  • Enrico: Samuel Ramey
  • Giovanna: Susanne Mentzer
  • Percy: Jerry Hadley
  • Conductor: Richard Bonynge
  • Orchestra: Orchestra and Chorus of the Welsh National Opera

Anna Bolena was one of the last new roles performed by Dame Joan Sutherland at the end of her long career. Unfortunately, it seems that she recorded it too late. To hear Sutherland in much fresher voice, you can watch the clip below of her debut in the role at the Canadian Opera Company in 1984. While we can hear several glimpses of Sutherland’s former glory in the 1988 studio recording, these appear among her very inconsistent almost wobbling middle register and an often broken legato. It is true, as many critics note, that Sutherland’s voice is much richer and darker especially in the lower register, and surprisingly her extreme high notes seem to retain their former glory, but for the listener, myself included, the question remains, “at what cost?”

As is to be expected, conductor Richard Bonynge attempts at a historically informed performance by casting a lighter voice as Giovanna, who sounds younger than and does not overpower the prima donna. He also allows his performers to add some very tasteful ornamentation. The most disappointing aspect of this recording is the transposition of Anna’s final aria down a tone to allow Sutherland to cap it off with a high note. As a great supporter of high notes, even I find this troublesome because it was not common practice for singers in the mid 19th century to “go up the octave” so to speak at the end of an aria. This is a tradition that became popular in the late 19th century. If Sutherland can no longer hit the unwritten E flat, why must the entire aria be changed for one note? The cast is rounded out with Jerry Hadley as a compelling Percy, and Samuel Ramey as a vocally resplendent, but somewhat emotionally vapid Enrico.

A Personal Favourite

  • Year: 1993
  • Anna Bolena: Nelly Miricioiu
  • Erico: Harald Stamm
  • Giovanna: Martine Dupuy
  • Percy: Donald Kaasch
  • Conductor: Viotti Marcello
  • Orchestra: Orchestre symphonique et Choeurs de la Monnaie

Another relatively unheard-of soprano outside Europe, Nelly Miricioiu was particularly famous for her interpretations of bel canto works such as Bolena. In this live recording, her vocal nuance, quality of her voice, and superb ornamentation remind us of Callas’ performance. For me, Miricioiu is one of the most convincing performers in this repertoire because she uses all her vocal resources in the service of the drama. From 10 minutes to about 17 in the video below are clips of Miricioiu singing the role of Anna. One can hear how she uniquely declaims each line and heavily ornaments it to display the character’s shifting pathos.

The International Star of Bel Canto

  • Year: 1994
  • Label: Nightingale Classics
  • Anna Bolena: Edita Gruberova
  • Enrico: Stefano Palatchi
  • Giovanna: Delores Ziegler
  • Percy: Jose Bros
  • Conductor: Elio Boncompagni
  • Orchestra: Hungarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra

Known as the international star of bel canto, Edita Gruberova brings a fittingly grand finish to this list of divas who have performed Anna Bolena. Gruberova falls in the tradition of lighter sopranos like Sills performing Anna with what some might call stratospheric high notes. Like Sills, Gruberova is weakest in her lower register. However, she uses it to her advantage to show the inner turmoil of the character. She also adds a significant amount of ornamentation to sometimes intelligently alter the vocal line and bypass these difficulties in vocal register. Although she throws vocal flourish after flourish with ease, this is not to say that she does it without cause. As Gruberova explains in the first minute and a half of a documentary titled “The Art of Bel Canto,” each run, or note even, is inspired by an emotion she is trying to express:

Because of this approach, without knowing exactly what she is saying, one always seems to know the emotion that Gruberova is trying to convey. We can hear this in the video below taken by an adoring fan. This is Anna’s first aria when she remembers the lost happiness of her first love, Percy. Gruberova tops the aria off with an octave (one of her well know specialties) after which the audience erupts in applause showing their approval of the diva:

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena can be seen at the Four Seasons Centre on 145 Queen St W, Toronto, ON M5H 4G1 from April 28 to May 26. For details see here.

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