The Australian soprano reflects on the challenges of singing Donizetti’s tragic Anna Bolena.

While Anna Bolena is definitely on the larger end of the bel canto roles, it still requires great flexibility, as well as heft and drama where required. It is a great thrill to sing and while it is perhaps ‘heavier’ than some other bel canto roles – mostly due to the intense dramatic situation Anna finds herself in – one must remember to maintain a lilt and ease so that the voice remains flexible. There are also a number of lower notes: the bottom register is well applied by Donizetti to add drama and colour, and I absolutely love using a wide range of colours to characterise her journey. The challenges of the role lie in matching the tessitura and the weight or volume. There are also a number of added cadenzas and high notes, so finding the balance between the elements is crucial. Anna is extremely fun to sing, as well as technically challenging – but again therein lies the fun too!

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena departs from the historical details in a number of ways, done for dramatic licence. However, there is much that corresponds with the historical Anne Boleyn’s journey. In my opinion, her trial itself was a complete set-up, and the nature of it is made very clear in the opera.

As for Anna’s mad scene, I would say it is less ‘mad’ than many! She begins the mad scene in a state of delusion, drifting in and out of awareness of her real situation. It begins in some respects like the Lucia di Lammermoor mad scene, in both concept – Anna is imagining a wedding – and orchestral colour. However, it soon shifts to much more dramatic colours and intense melodic shapes. It is perhaps less florid than roles like Elvira or Lucia, but is no less impressive.

The role of Anna Bolena has been performed by a great number of sopranos, including Callas, Sutherland, and Netrebko. In an ideal world we would all love the dramatic intensity of La Callas, as well as the beauty of tone and flexibility of La Stupenda. Of the other major exponents of the role, I admire Beverly Sills for her recordings, which are extremely ornamented – perhaps too much? I would like to be at least as inventive where required. And though no recordings of Giuditta Pasta exist, one would hope to have a voice as strong and flexible as hers at the top, with the same depth and colour in the middle and bottom.

Pasta, the original Anna, was a mezzo-like soprano, who was both the first Norma and Amina, the latter of which is substantially lighter and requires more limpid flexibility. Given the original Anna’s voice, and contemporary audience expectation for extemporised top notes, balance and care must be taken in order to maintain ease at both ends of the registers, to give the widest range of possible colour.

Knowing the repertoire of Donizetti’s Tudor Queens, it would be a joy to one day have the opportunity to sing Queen Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux.

Elena Xanthoudakis appears in the Australian premiere of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena for Melbourne Opera November 2, 5 and 9. Melbourne Opera stages the Australian premiere of Roberto Deveraux in 2017.

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