nna Bolena premiered in 1830 and was Donizetti’s first great success–and it remains one of his finest works. Aside from his usual endless fount of melodies, we find through-composed scenes wherein recitative seamlessly melds into arioso and into aria or ensemble. Anna manages to come across as a real character, as does the unfortunate Jane Seymour, who has the (bad) luck to be Henry VIII’s new love; and Henry’s music, too, is composed effectively for this royal villain. Less successfully portrayed but still with a couple of fine arias and some stunning ensemble music is Anna’s brother Percy. He’s an earthbound character but his music is wonderful and difficult (it was composed for the legendary Rubini).
Following the premiere, Anna Bolena held the stages of Europe for another 50 years, but then disappeared until 1957 when it was mounted at La Scala as a star vehicle for Maria Callas, and one might say that that production was the start of the bel canto revival. Leyla Gencer, Renata Scotto, Elena Souliotis, and Beverly Sills later appeared in the opera, with the New York City Opera also mounting productions of Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux for Sills in the 1970s. Sills made a specialty of the “three queens”, and this excellent yet long unavailable 1972 recording at last appears on CD. Even given Callas’ galvanizing performance (on EMI), this set, note-complete, is better and is the one to own.
Like Callas, Sills was capable of expressing sadness, outrage, and anger through vocal means alone (she also could sound happy and flirtatious, two qualities that Callas had great trouble with), and that’s what Anna is all about. In spectacular voice, and with the vocal line embellished the way it (probably) would have been for Giuditta Pasta (who created the part), Sills rules; she paints a vivid picture of the wronged queen. Whether pleading with Henry not to humiliate her by forcing her to go to trial, discovering that Seymour is her rival, half-crazily recalling happier childhood days, or manically pardoning the “wicked couple” as she goes to her death, Sills breathtakingly draws us into the drama. If this were her only recorded legacy, she would still be considered a great soprano.
Equally good–indeed, probably in her finest recorded performance–is Shirley Verrett’s Seymour. As the practically innocent co-conspirator in Anna’s sentencing, Verrett moves us as she moves Anna. And her voice, rich and velvety but with a potent edge at the top (she and Sills tear the house down with high Cs in unison at the end of their Act 2 duet), never sounded better. As Henry, Paul Plishka also never sounded better on disc, and he gives us an imperious, totalitarian King in all of his power. Tenor Stuart Burrows is a very classy singer, but his voice is a bit short at the top for Percy–he resorts to falsetto just when real authority is called for (Rubini probably did as well, but that’s another discussion). Nevertheless, he holds up his end of the line at almost all other times. Julius Rudel, a frequent Sills partner, leads the London Symphony Orchestra and John Alldis Choir in a loving reading, with a strong beat for the rhythmically complex ensembles and a kind ear to the singers’ neeeds. This is a must for those who love great singing/acting, and an ideal introduction to the serious, non-Lucia side to Donizetti for those who are just getting to know his operas.