Opera seria in two acts.
Libretto by Felice Romani, based on Ippolito Pindemonte’s Enrico VIII (a translation of a play of the same name by Marie-Joseph de Chénier) and Alessandro Pepoli’s Anna Bolena.
First performed in the Teatro Carcano, Milan, on 26 December 1830
In a hall in Windsor Castle, courtiers gossip about the possible reason why the king, Henry VIII, is delaying visiting his queen, Anne Boleyn. Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, arrives and expresses her concern at having been responsible for Henry’s lack of interest in Anne, since he now loves her instead. Anne herself enters with her retinue and asks Smeaton, a favourite musician who is himself in love with Anne, to entertain them with one of his songs. Smeaton sings about the queen’s pale appearance, and about his guess that she is remembering some former love. Anne interrupts the song and reflects on how empty her glamorous life has become – she calls for Jane and tells her to beware of the illusion of happiness that the throne offers. Anne leaves to go to her own rooms and the others disperse, leaving Jane alone. She is concerned that Anne might have found out about Henry and herself, and when Henry arrives, her obvious discomfort at his presence annoys him. His suspicions deepen when Jane tells him that this might be their final meeting, and he responds by telling her that soon she will not have a rival at all. Jane insists that it is her own sense of honour that is driving her to end their relationship, and Henry accuses her of being in love with the throne rather than with him, adding a hint that this was precisely the problem with Anne. Jane insists that she does not want to be the cause of Anne’s unhappiness and despite Henry’s reassurances, Jane still has misgivings.
In the royal park at Windsor, Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort encounters Lord Richard Percy, who was in love with Anne but had gone into exile in order not to aggravate her marriage to the king. Percy has returned from exile in order to petition Henry to reinstate him at court. He asks Rochefort if the rumours that Henry has lost interest in Anne are true, and Rochefort confirms that this is indeed the case. The royal hunting party approaches and the prospect of seeing Anne again makes Percy realise that he is still in love with her. The king and his huntsmen enter and he expresses his surprise at seeing Anne out and about; she replies that she has only come in order to see him, and he responds that she has been much on his mind. Percy tries to kiss the king’s hand, but Henry refuses to let him, remembering that Percy’s death sentence was only commuted to exile because of Anne’s pleading. Anne privately recalls Percy’s tears of gratitude on her hand, and Henry orders a courtier, Hervey, to keep a close watch on both Anne and Percy. Percy tells Rochefort how much the thought of Anne has comforted him in his exile, but Rochefort warns him to take care. Henry insists that Percy must be in close attendance on him at court, and everyone but Henry sings about an auspicious day which has begun with such an act of forgiveness.
In the castle, Smeaton enters the queen’s apartments unobserved to return a portrait of her which he had taken: he pours out his love for her, comparing the freedom with which he can declare it to the portrait with the silence he must maintain to keep his love a secret from Anne. He hears someone coming and hides behind a curtain. Anne comes in, with her brother; Rochefort asks her to meet with Percy and Anne agrees, but only if Rochefort stands guard outside the room. Percy enters and Anne confesses to him that the crown she so coveted has turned out to be a crown of thorns and that she had been wrong to reject his love. Percy declares that he still loves her and when she tells him that the king has come to hate her, this inflames Percy’s love, but Anne advises him never to speak openly of his feelings towards her, and she even tells him to get out of England while he can – and although Percy insists on staying, Anne too is adamant. Percy draws his sword with the intention of killing himself and Smeaton, alarmed for Anne’s life, leaps from his hiding place with his own sword drawn. Anne faints and her brother rushes in to warn her that the king is coming. Henry arrives, sees Percy and Smeaton with their swords drawn, and calls the guards. Anne has revived, and Henry is presented with the sight of his wife alone with her former lover, one of her closest retinue and her brother: Smeaton realises how it must look and decides to sacrifice himself in an attempt to save Anne. He rips open his doublet in order to bare his chest for execution, but Anne’s portrait falls to the ground and Henry regards this as confirming his suspicions about Anne’s infidelity. He orders her to leave and as Rochefort, Percy and Smeaton all sing of their regrets about the situation they have put her in, Henry orders that they should each be put in a separate prison. Anne asks Henry to listen to her, but Henry tells her abruptly that she must save her explanation for the judge: Anne realises that she cannot survive.
The Tower of London
Anne’s ladies-in-waiting discuss how all her friends seem to have deserted the queen – even her closest friend Jane Seymour has abandoned her. Anne emerges from her room and they all declare their loyalty, but Hervey tells them that they too must give evidence before the Council. They leave and Anne is left alone, weeping and praying. Jane enters and tells Anne that her life can be spared if she confesses her guilt and renounces her title as queen. Anne is astounded, but Jane goes on to say that she makes the request not only in the king’s name, but in the name of the guilty woman who will replace Anne as Henry’s wife. Anne curses this unknown rival and swears that her ghost will haunt the royal marriage bed. Jane falls to the ground and Anne realises that it is Jane herself who is her rival. Jane tells Anne how the king pursued her and how she was too inexperienced to avoid him, but that despite her sorrow at what has happened, she still loves him. Anne tells her that Henry is to blame, and asks Jane to leave, promising to pray for her.
Outside the Council Chamber, courtiers are discussing Smeaton, who is being interrogated; they hope that he will be strong enough to maintain his silence, but Hervey comes out of the Chamber, gloating that Smeaton, on the assurance that a full confession from him will save the queen’s life, has confessed to being her lover: Hervey reports this to Henry. Anne and Percy are brought in and Anne tells Henry that she would rather die at his hand than be condemned by the Council. She tells him that this is a royal prerogative, but Henry mocks her, telling her that she did not care for royal prerogative when she committed adultery with Percy. Percy objects to this and the king responds by accusing Anne of also having an affair with one of her musicians. Anne turns on Henry, accusing him of adultery and telling him that he may bring about her death, but he will never destroy her reputation. Henry is determined that both Anne and Percy will die, but Percy still has faith in the court. Anne, however, declares that there is no justice in Henry’s court. Provoked, Henry announces that there will soon be a new queen, and Percy tells him that Anne was once married to him. Henry demands to know the truth from Anne, but she cannot speak, and Percy gently reminds her that she had been promised to him as a child. Henry sends them before the Council to confess this former marriage and Anne and Percy leave, convinced that the country will not accept a new queen. Jane joins Henry and tells him that she has come to say goodbye, and that she cannot bear the thought that she is responsible for Anne’s fate. Henry insists that he and Jane will soon marry, and blames Anne even more for driving Jane away from him. Jane confesses that she loves Henry but begs him not to make her the cause of the queen’s death. Hervey enters and announces that the Council has annulled Henry’s marriage to Anne, and that Anne and all her accomplices have been condemned to death. Jane’s pleas for mercy have no effect on the king.
Back in the Tower of London, Hervey tells Percy and Rochefort that their lives have been pardoned, but when they realise that Anne is still to die, they both reject the pardon. Percy urges Rochefort to live so that there will be one person who knows the truth, but Rochefort tells him that they will die together.
Anne is losing her mind. She imagines first that it is her wedding day to Henry, and then that Percy has come to accuse her of rejecting his love. She begs his forgiveness, and then recalls her childhood home, wanting just one more day of happiness. Hervey brings Percy, Rochefort and Smeaton to join her and in her confused state, she asks Smeaton why he is not playing his lute for her. Cannon fire and the ringing of bells are heard and when the others tell Anne that these are the sounds of celebration at the marriage of the king, she collapses. As the sheriffs come to lead the condemned prisoners to the block, Percy, Rochefort and Smeaton look at Anne’s prostrate body and comment gloomily that one victim has already been sacrificed.
Other related OperaStory articles can be found on
- Gaetano Donizetti’s life and operas
- Felice Romani’s life and librettos
- The writing of Anna Bolena
- The first cast of Anna Bolena
- Other operas featuring Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
- and many aspects other of the opera
© Roger Witts 2009