Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mistress, Queen, Romantic Heroine: The Many Roles of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn: 16th century portrait
Anne Boleyn has proved as fascinating to posterity as she was to Henry VIII.  Scholars and dilettantes, poets and painters, have been fascinated by the second of the (in)famous English king's wives, the first to be executed... and that after accusations of plotting regicide, and committing adultery with no fewer than five men, including her own brother.  The subject is temptingly sensational, as a glance at a list of fictional works concerning the unfortunate queen demonstrates. The debates are virtually inexhaustible: how credible did the charges against her have to be? were they only a means to a desired end? desired by whom? I won't pretend to answer all these questions, but in honor of the 1 month countdown to the Met Opera's season opening performance of Donizetti's opera (I'm excited!) I present a brief summary of Anne's political and posthumous career.

Among the many historical inaccuracies of Donizetti's thoroughly Romantic opera, perhaps the most striking is the unanimous sympathy expressed by the chorus of courtiers for the queen herself. In actual fact, the factionalism of Henry's court was lively, bitter, and, in some scholarly interpretations, the chief cause of Anne Boleyn's downfall and eventual death.  During the years of Anne's favor with the king (longer than their marriage) members of her family and their allies were granted influential positions; such influence attracted envy, and in the years of Anne's uneasy position as Henry's mistress, it would be all too easy to claim that the king's judgment had been led astray by his passion. Even after her marriage and accession to the throne, even after the death of Katherine of Aragon, there were those who persistently referred to her as "the Concubine." What of Anne herself? Much ink, scholarly and otherwise, has been spilled in attempting to analyze her character and her motives. I personally find her more credible as player than pawn.  In fictional accounts of her story, naturally enough, legal innocence has been equated with good character, the definition of which is, of course, relative.   Modern novelists have read between the lines of her story to find a vivacious heroine whose attempts at self-expression and self-assertion brought her downfall.  For the Romantic movement which influenced Donizetti, however, she was a heroine of a very different sort.

Giuditta Pasta as Anna
Donizetti eagerly embraced the inspiration of the Romantic movement. The novels of Sir Walter Scott inspired works such as Rossini's La Donna del Lago (1819), and Donizetti's own Il Castello di Kenilworth (1821.) Bellini's Il Pirata (1827) emphasized darker elements of the genre, a tendency also visible in the violence of Anna Bolena, much of which is sexually motivated.  William Ashbrook has described the relationships between the characters in the drama as expressed in a series of overlapping triangles: wife-husband-lover, wife-husband-mistress, wife-husband-page. Anna, although married to Henrico, pines for Percy, her first love, who still harbors passion for her. Henrico has seduced Giovanna Seymour, whose remorse, and affection for Anna, are insufficient to quell her feelings for the king. Meanwhile, the adoration of the page Smeton for the isolated queen sparks the volatile Henrico's jealousy.

The critic Mazzini called Anna Bolena "epic poetry in music." The libretto, by Felice Romani, is available in a lovely Ricordi edition with proper line breaks and without a clumsy English translation to clutter it up (Amazon; I got mine more cheaply at the Met Shop, but it isn't listed through their online outlet.)  From its premiere onwards, critics have seen in it signs of artistic meticulousness and individual imagination lacking in Donizetti's earlier oeuvre. Philip Gossett, however, has argued that Anna Bolena represents rather a demonstration of the composer's developing craft, and evolving artistic sensibilities, than a sudden break with his previous output.  According to Gossett (in this book,) "Many of Donizetti's changes in the autograph of Anna Bolena reveal his tendency to give proportion and balance lower priority than directness of utterance, avoidance of formal repetition, and... dramatic continuity."

These changes mark experimentation with, rather than a rejection of, the forms which defined Rossini's mature work, and therewith much of Donizetti's musical world. But Donizetti's own individuality as an artist, and the individuality of his characters, are strongly apparent. In duets, arioso passages, and cabalettas, seemingly endless permutations of confrontations occur.  The mercurial monarch, the smitten page, the timid but passionate lady-in-waiting, the fiery young nobleman; they all revolve around the ambitious woman who sees too late that she has lost a chance at love. Nor do Donizetti and Romani resolve the enigmas of Anna's character: in her tempestuous final scene, she may speak words of forgiveness, but the fierce music tells another, and equally compelling story. Anna Netrebko brings it to the Met in the fall.


  1. Very interesting. There has, as you say, been much discussion of AB's "character" but from occasional perusal of biographies of the period I'm inclined to concur with what you seem to intimate: that, while very much an important component (I specifically avoid saying "pawn") in the Howardian power play, she was by no stretch of the imagination passive or pure and the more interesting for that reason. Yet my first memory of her, from a PBS series ("The Six Wives of Henry the VIII, or something) when I was 7 or 8, is as a hyper sympathetic, and rather innocent actor. All part of the "debate" I suppose.

    You examination of the history via the actual drama of the events as depicted by Donezetti is most compelling. I'm looking forward to it but it is a shame to loose Garanca. Hopefully the production will be interesting (sure, and the subways are running smoothly this weekend).

    Hope you're staying dry, safe and electrified this lovely weekend.

  2. @marcillac Thanks! I do agree: in all probability innocent of the crimes she was accused of, but by no means an innocent! Her interest in evangelicalism and engagement in international politics are topics I'd love to read more about... not to mention the questions surrounding the correspondence with her brother and other indiscretions. I think I saw the same PBS series.

    I'm becoming increasingly attached to the opera as I become better acquainted with it, so I also hope for good things from the fall run! I have very little sense of what to expect from McVicar at this point; the curtain-less scene changes sound promising, accounts of cuts worrisome. I'm taking the Count of Monte Cristo's advice: "Wait and hope!"

    The ceiling has a damp patch, but the power is still on! Hope you have also escaped the wrath of the storm.

  3. The length of that list of fiction works...! There's no comparably lengthy list of historical works, I dare surmise. (This looks interesting: and LRB review

    I was only ever interested in AB because of Elizabeth. I thought this AB industry must have a source there. But no, apparently. She produces independent fascination due to being "the most controversial woman ever to have been queen consort of England".

    And the question is whether the bel canto composers thought figures like Lucrezia Borgia and Anne Boleyn were useful tools for them to say something about their own age; or whether they were just interested in appropriation of costumes and romantic intrigue, the way some escapist historical fiction works now. I don't know... I think Don Carlo uses history the right way; and Lucrezia Borgia not at all, but if you asked me analyze why I think that, it would take some looking into. Maybe because Don Carlo is (among multiple other things) a statement against monarchic absolutism and patriarchal family, and Lucrezia Borgia just an escapist intrigue-slash-diva vehicle.

    Anyhoo... Just taking a few shaky ideas out for a walk.

  4. Yes Lucy, the "essence of all human wisdom", couldn't concur with more enthusiasm.

    A spot of summer rain, no trouble at all (almost). We were actually supposed to go to Virginia to visit Significant Other's parents. Probably would have had to cancel under the circumstances had she not abgesagt earlier because she had to work weekend.

  5. @DtO and an interestingly complicated statement about absolutism and patriarchal family, if one looks at the source material...and with Elisabeth de Valois not quite in the center of it, and yet, and yet... Yeah, I love questions like this.

    It's an even more interesting question with Goethe rattling his chains over there in the twitter margin. ---->

    which btw: Proms Lit Fest talking heads (including Simon Callow) talk Fausts:

  6. @marcillac Glad to hear it. And thinking it might be time for me to revisit that magnificently kaleidoscopic novel (avoiding the word "digressive" as I suspect many of the episodes contain layers I haven't excavated yet, so to speak.)

    @DtO @stray I skimmed Ives' biography, and I did find it quite interesting. I think the reviewer's criticism of trying to impose discrete categories for political, religious, and personal concerns on the ins and outs of Tudor court goings-on is most apt, though... and the way those categories blur together is certainly one of the elements which I find most interesting. Anne the "most controversial" queen consort?? Tell that to Eleanor of Aquitaine! ;) The obsession of fiction-writers with the story does seem disproportionate to me; examining the "whys" would be an interesting exercise.

    As for the Romantic composers, I'm not sure; it's an aspect of the composition process/inspiration I had hoped to find more about than I did. Romani, the librettist for AB and Lucrezia, did say re: the former that, while the historical facts of guilt and innocence might be debatable, he had decided that having Henry VIII as a tyrant and Anne as victim (Percy and Rochefort as noble resisters of tyranny? not specified in the quoted passage) would be more suitable for a melodrama. I was going to give Schiller some credit for the success/complexity of Don Carlo! I think you know the play better than I do, though, Stray. Lucrezia Borgia was based on a Hugo play, and apparently Donizetti was against the idea of a cabaletta in the final scene, as not appropriate to the dramatic situation, but the diva had her way... And then we have Goethe, who seems to be mostly content with making his complicated critiques in works with a contemporary setting. And then there's Faust, which proved the most fascinating to operatic composers. So much pondering to be done!

  7. Yes, I'd love to hear more about Schiller's Don Carlo as well. (Though composers and librettists usually abuse historical materials and literary sources whichever way they please...)

    The key roles of Don Carlos the opera are male (there are only two women and four male principals, if I remember correctly). Women, moreover, are the usual two types: the Fallen Woman and the Woman Who Resists the Fall. The male characters get so much musical heft, and they of course own dramatic agency. Yet yet yet. It's in so many ways a work about the inner cracks and crumbles of patriarchy which rarely get shown. I think that any work that honestly looks at masculinity and men will show that, and will be indirectly about women even if it has no plausible female characters.

    "[W]hile the historical facts of guilt and innocence might be debatable, he had decided that having Henry VIII as a tyrant and Anne as victim (...) would be more suitable for a melodrama." Ah yes, precisely the problem.

  8. @Lucy - TCoM is always a good idea though I must confess that on repeated readings I haven't derived as much pleasure as perhaps I should. The fun really kicks of with the introduction of Dantes as "The Count of Monte Cristo" at his meeting with Franz on MC and rips on from there.

    @DTO: I'm inclined to agree that Verdi "uses history" correctly to make a relevant contemporary point, this rather in spite of the many historical infelicities in his (and of course Schiller's) work. Some of the more pronounced of these infelicities, however, relate to Elisabeth and Eboli, where the relationships of the characters and the most basic historical facts (i.e. Phillip's age) are dealt with in rather cavalier fashion. Any historical points made with respect to these relationships cannot then, it seems to be, to be said to "use history correctly".

    It is also the case that Elisabeth, very much unlike AB and LB, a non-prima donna role. To wit: Trebs has decided to take on AB, Renee Fleming has sung LB and in an interview mentioned that she had considered Elisabeth but decided on Violetta (implying, perhaps, the same point).

    Just to be clear, I love almost every note of Don Carlos and "Tu Che La Venita" is possibly my favorite soprano aria in the Italian repertoire. Further, though not a prima donna vehicle Elizabetta has been sung by Caballe, Jurinac and Janowitz, inter alia, and in particular seems to be taken by sopranos whose voice and temperament I find particularly appealing. I look forward to Harteros's assumption with almost wild enthusiasm. (Very interested in Garanca's eventual Eboli as well).

  9. Any discussion of DC is a slippery slope into the heart of geekery for me, so I will only point out a couple of things: one, that in spite of the vagaries of Parisian mass transit, Verdi's librettists did try to cleave as close to the play as possible. But in the end they cut a major character or two, cut a lot of scenes, rearranged what they had left (and thus the plot), and did a lot of additional streamlining. Nevertheless when we talk about what Verdi did with dramatic representation, unless we're talking real specifics, for the most part it's really what Schiller did. The real question then (for another day) is what was the draw for Verdi and what was his input in the creation of the libretto.

    Second (@DtO), sexual Resistance / Non-Resistance in DC could be examined in terms of the parameters of female agency, and E de V's actions in that regard could be seen as a politically motivated seizing of the moral high ground. (Which space, given the position of the Church/State axis, Schiller makes inherently oppositional...not to say a seething hotbed of subversion and sedition.)

    @ Lucy, I was thinking not so much historical representation in Goethe but representation of women...particularly in male drag in Wilhelm Meister...But, like I said, heart of geekery.

  10. @marsi, when I say 'good usage of history', I don't necessarily mean 'faithful to historical accuracy'. What I mean is, what kind of use one puts one's reworking of historical figures and narratives. I think that as a playwright or a librettist, say, you can turn to history to create a simple melodrama, push the national pride buttons to sell tickets or appease hegemonic taste of the day all the while trying to remain 'historically accurate'. These two often diverge -- melodrama and historical accuracy, to use Lucy's example for example - but they can also have an indifferent relation.

    But you're right to turn my focus on the E de V and Eboli, Stray and Marsillac. What for me remains more salient in DC than its two women is that 1) patriarchy eats its sons, 2) there's a father above the father and the Father above that father (the amazing, horrifying Cardinal vs Philip scene is as much about the Church vs state as is about Freud).

    But on other days, I wonder if the libretti matter at all. The music and the intelligent stage director and performers can make the silliest piece of text brilliant, it seems on some days.

  11. Absolutely, and patriarchy eating its sons is pretty much what Schiller is all about. Although, and particularly in DC, there's this constant attempt on the part of the sons to open dialogues with Authority, which is where Verdi lucks out.

  12. A "uses of history" discussion! Christmas in August! For me, the most satisfying literary uses of history are those which are concerned with the why as well as the how of relationships and events... always in some measure a speculative exercise, but at its best, I think, a way also to reflect on the why and how of contemporary events, and the relationship of the present to the (constructed?) past. ...Trying unsuccessfully to rein in my own slide into the Heart of Geekery here.

    When it comes to DC, I'm intrigued by marcillac's note that Elisabetta hasn't traditionally been a "prima donna" role... would love to see a chapter on that somewhere in a discussion of opera's leading women. Also, Anja Harteros OMG yes. Thanks for the pithiness of "patriarchy eating its sons," DtO; suddenly I want to reread Kabale und Liebe. The question of "Does the libretto stop mattering at some point, and if so when?" is a most intriguing one in reference to Anna Bolena as well.

    Can I tempt you into geekery re: Schiller's concept of history, Stray? Views on the importance of individual agency in bringing progress out of periods of misery? Tension between personal and societal loyalties (obvs on full display in Don Carlo)? I find a lot of Schiller's views on periodization and progress problematic, but am fascinated by the power he acknowledges of historical analysis to "create" history, in a sense, shaping the past into a narrative that seems meaningful for the present/future.

    Oh, and Goethe and women! I confess that I haven't read Wilhelm Meister since my German was adequate to actually "getting it" in any meaningful sense. Will have to move it up the "must (re)read" list. A "What is Lotte like as a character and how do we know" debate can keep me indefinitely entertained.

  13. I recently read this fantastic essay about historical novels: Perry Anderson, LRB, long read: He tackles the question of what political purposes historic novels have been used and read for.

    Meanwhile, I'll look forward to reading a thread on 'Why Schiller Matters' or 'Goethe, Our Contemporary' on either Stray's or Lucy's blog some time soon. I haven't read either man in a long while, rattrapage may be in order.

  14. @Lucy, re Schillerian notions of agency, idealism, and progress, cf George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical. Re Lotte, srsly, does she even exist?

    @DtO thanks for the link, that is an interesting piece. Wonder if Lukács knew that Scott cut his literary teeth translating Götz von Berlichingen. Not sure if that calls into question his theory on the advent of the historical novel or not. The stage was loaded with historical representation prior to Napoleon - how much was that an influence on the development of historical fiction? Hmmmm. Lots of interesting places that could go.

  15. @stray Right, off to read George Eliot while thinking about Schiller, then. :) I think Lotte HAS to exist! I admit that this probably has a great deal to do with my sentimental preferences. But I think she does, intelligent, sensitive, surprisingly strong-willed, and more inexperienced than naive... dimly seen, perhaps, but not two-dimensional.

    @DtO I second the thanks for the v. interesting essay. I'm also interested by some pre-Scott novels which seem to fit the criteria, e.g. Jane Porter's Scottish Chiefs.. Harrison Ainsworth, whom he mentions, wrote a multivolume novel about Anne Boleyn which I suffered through once. Also intrigued by possible off-shoots of this study, esp. the fertile ground of asking what "postmodern historical fiction" is, what it is doing, and why.

  16. Won't be hard, Felix Holt is wall-to-wall Don Carlos. Okay maybe that's an exaggeration, but really it so totally isn't.


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