The story of Anne Boleyn provides us with a real life tragedy that outdoes many a fictional plot. The opera opens with Anna as the unhappy, ignored wife of Henry VIII. She knows how important it is to give Henry a male heir as soon as possible; but in the three years they have been married, she has had only one daughter (the future Elizabeth I) and several miscarriages. Soon she learns the king has transferred his affection to one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.
In 1830 Anna Bolena was Gaetano Donizetti’s first opera to be a major hit, even though he had already written some 30-odd other operas. It succeeded with its beautifully melodious bel canto tunes, its many lovely duets, and the extraordinary sextet at the end of Act I.
This opera is one of three Donizetti wrote based on English Tudor history: Roberto Devereux (the assumed lover of Elizabeth I) and Maria Stuarda (about Mary, Queen of Scots) are the other two. The main characters of these operas are referred to as the “Three Donizetti Queens.”