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History Under the Bright Lights: Donizetti's 'Anna Bolena'

Soprano Anna Netrebko stars in the Vienna State Opera production of Donizetti's <em>Anna Bolena</em>.
Michael Pohn
Vienna State Opera
Soprano Anna Netrebko stars in the Vienna State Opera production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena.

Two years before her Oscar-winning role in Black Swan, Natalie Portman appeared in the period drama The Other Boleyn Girl. And that title says a lot about the character Portman played in the film — an historical figure so famous that the title evokes her without even using her full name.

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, was England's queen for just three years before her execution on questionable charges of treason and adultery in 1536. But her influence far outlived her brief time wearing the crown. She's been cited as a key figure in the increased power of the Anglican church in its conflict with the Vatican, and her daughter became one of England's most powerful monarchs, Queen Elisabeth I.

By now, Anne has achieved celebrity status not just in history but in all sorts of popular entertainment, from numerous novels and plays to a wide range of films, in which Anne has been portrayed by Merle Oberon, Vanessa Redgrave, Genevieve Bujold and Helena Bonham Carter, as well as Portman.

Still, thanks to Gaetano Donizetti and his opera Anna Bolena, there may have been more noteworthy portrayals of Anne Boleyn in the world's opera houses than anywhere else. The opera's title character has been sung by a long list of great sopranos, including Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, Renata Scotto and Joan Sutherland. And now, one of today's operatic superstars can be added to that list.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Anna Bolena in a recent production from Vienna that represents a pair of significant firsts. It's the Vienna State Opera's first ever production of the opera, and soprano Anna Netrebko's first appearance in the dramatic title role.

The Vienna production was also one of 2011's most anticipated operatic events, and the opening night performance lived up to its billing, earning the performers a 20-minute standing ovation. Along with Netrebko, the heralded cast also included bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Henry VIII, mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca as Jane Seymour and mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman as Smeaton, all led by conductor Evelino Pidò.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.