‘Anna Bolena’: The Queen Who Changed History

Soprano Keri Alkema on Donizetti's operatic masterpiece
May 1, 2018 Updated: May 4, 2018

At her trial for adultery and treason against her husband, the king, Anne Boleyn spoke calmly—her speech was neither accusatory nor defamatory. Her words were surprisingly introspective.

The disgraced queen reflected on her own faults. She had shown a lack of humility toward a kind husband and expressed jealousy toward him. But, she added, those were her only faults as a wife—she was innocent of all other accusations.

Today, the charges against Anne are believed by most historians to have been trumped up by the king and his advisers to assure him of a speedy marriage dissolution.

Just three years prior (in 1533), England’s Henry VIII had divorced his loyal wife of 23 years, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne. The king had been in love. He was also desperate for a son.

But Anne failed to deliver and her strong temper also irritated Henry. She was jealous of his infidelities (for good reason) and didn’t fail to show it. Now he had fallen for another woman, and Anne was an obstacle he needed to remove. Her pride and strong temper had made many enemies at court, and it was relatively easy for Henry to bring charges against her. The king’s will was unbent; Anne was executed.

The Fascination With Anne Boleyn

To this day, Anne Boleyn is one of the most captivating figures in history—a multi-layered queen who continues to trigger both admiration and contempt. On the one hand, she was an intelligent, brave woman who dared to stand her ground in the face of the powerful King Henry. On the other hand, due to her ambition she helped demote a rightful queen (Catherine of Aragon) and usher in a religious schism that would tear the country apart.

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Sondra Radvanovsky as Anne Boleyn. (Michael Cooper)

There have been many stories devoted to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, a king whose quest for love and a son led him to marry a total of six wives. He was not too lucky in marriage: two wives he sent away, two he ordered executed, one died in childbirth, and one survived him.

The story of Henry and his wives was also fascinating in 19th-century Italy when composer Gaetano Donizetti and his librettist Felice Romani chose Anne as the subject of their new opera. “Anna Bolena” premiered in 1830 in Milan and was Donizetti’s first great success. While based on historical facts, the story is nonetheless fiction, taking some liberties with the characters and plotline to showcase an emotional drama for the stage.

It is an opera centred on the themes of betrayal, ambition, love, hatred, guilt, and, surprisingly, friendship.

In the story, Jane Seymour, Anne’s lady-in-waiting who has been chosen by Henry as his third wife, is guilt-ridden by her role in Anne’s downfall. Her love for Henry has precipitated Anne’s fate, which turns out to be more horrible than that of his first wife, Catherine. The latter was exiled; Anne is threatened with death.

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Soprano Keri Alkema as Jane Seymour and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Henry VIII in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Anna Bolena.” (Michael Cooper)

The historical Jane Seymour has been painted as a kind, humble woman, often in contrast to Anne’s impetuous, strong-willed ways. She must have been ambitious as well, but less overtly.

American soprano Keri Alkema, who plays Jane in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Anna Bolena,” which runs in Toronto until May 26, finds the relationship between Jane and Anne in the opera to be especially heartbreaking.

“It shows Jane’s struggle with becoming queen and what that means—the death of another queen, and the death of a friend.”

“For me, that’s at the heart of the story,” she says.

Performing this role has been especially rewarding for Alkema because she has the chance to sing alongside soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who plays Anne. In real-life the two are good friends, which makes the performance extra special.

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(L-R) Keri Alkema as Jane Seymour and Sondra Radvanovsky as Anne Boleyn. (Michael Cooper)

“There are moments in the duet with her that are so emotional, and because I’m friends with her, this adds an extra layer of love and emotion. It’s hard not to get choked up, it’s hard not to cry,” she says.

In the second act duet, Jane admits to Anne that she is the woman Henry wants to marry.

“Can you imagine having to tell your sister or your best friend that this is what happened? … I think normally women gain a lot of strength from each other, so to tear one down, to have to break that [relationship], it’s just heartbreaking,” says Alkema.

The Glory of the Human Voice

Donizetti wrote “Anna Bolena,” in the bel canto style, a musical style that emphasizes the beauty of the human voice.

“It’s glorious to me. I think this music, you could just stand onstage in front of an orchestra and just sing it. You don’t really have to have all the staging. It’s just that beautiful to me, but it’s great with the costumes and the staging,” she says.

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American soprano Keri Alkema. (Dario Acosta)

As a fan of the history of Henry VIII and his wives, Alkema feels happy to have the opportunity to tell their story in an opera.

“For me, it was just a lot of fun to watch these characters come to life and tell a slightly different version of the story. … Because we don’t have [all] the information, maybe some of this emotional part of the story was true,” she says.

“If you’re a fan of this history, I think you will be blown away by how Donizetti wrote it—the music, the colours. I think it’s a good night at the theatre for that.”

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Anna Bolena” is directed by British director Stephen Lawless under the baton of Italian conductor Corrado Rovaris.  It runs at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until May 26. For more information, please visit: www.coc.ca