Passion. Betrayal. The History Behind Anna Bolena.

By Tracy Grant

On September 21, Merola Goes to the Movies Anna Bolena 6will present a film of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at the Vienna State Opera featuring 1996 Merola alumna Anna Netrebko in one of her signature roles. Anna Bolena is a lyrical Italian bel canto opera deeply rooted in English history. The opera, with a libretto by Felice Romani based on Ippolito Pindemonte’s Enrico VIII ossia Anna Bolena and Alessandro Pepoli’s Anna Bolena, tells the story of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn, a story familiar from countless dramatizations including Anne of the Thousand Days and The Other Boleyn Girl.

Most historical fiction takes some liberties with the historical record, from the minor to the sweeping. The opera is certainly no exception. It begins with Enrico (Henry) and Anna already married and glosses over Henry’s desperation for a male heir which led to him divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon (not to mention breaking away from the Catholic Church) and the political machinations of Anne’s family which also played a role in throwing the two of them together.

When the opera opens, Enrico’s interest has already turned to Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, oneAnna Bolena 7 of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting in historical fact, as she is in the opera. Anne’s former betrothed was named Henry (Harry) Percy, not Ricardo (Richard) Percy as in the opera (the change was perhaps to avoid confusion with King Henry). In real life, Percy and Anne wanted to marry and may have had a pre-contract. In the opera Percy claims they did, saying he and Anna were married in the sight of God. In the opera, Enrico pushes Anna and Percy together and Anna’s downfall comes about when she and Percy are caught in a seemingly compromising situation. In reality, though Henry or at least his agents may well have manipulated the accusations of infidelity against Anne to bring about her downfall, Percy was actually not one of the men with whom she was accused of adultery.

Musician Mark Anna BolenaSmeaton was accused of adultery with Anne, as in the opera, and falsely confessed to the crime. In the opera he does so in the mistaken belief it will save Anna’s life. In reality, Smeaton probably confessed under torture. He was executed in real life, as he is in the opera. Anne was also accused of infidelity with her brother George, Lord Rochefort, as she is in the opera. In the opera. Rochefort and Percy are pardoned but choose to die with Anna. In reality, Rochefort was executed. Percy in fact, served on the jury at Anne’s trial, though he is said to have collapsed at the guilty verdict or perhaps before the vote was taken.

The opera ends with Anna going mad and going to her execution as Henry VIII and Giovanna Seymour are married. The historical Anne was in fact remarkably stoic through out her tral and execution, and Henry and Jane Seymour’s marriage took place 11 days after Anne was beheaded.

Historical differences aside, Donizetti’s opera is a gripping drama set to a stirring score, a musical and dramatic treat for lovers of both opera and history.

Join us for Merola Goes to the Movies on Sunday, September 21st at 1 pm at the SF Public Library Main Branch (100 Larkin Street) for a free screening of Anna Bolena. For information, please visit here.

Tracy Grant is Merola’s Director of Foundation, Corporate, and Government Relations and also an historical novelist. Visit her website at