Music: Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto: Felice Romani
England, 1536. After nearly a decade of political and religious upheaval, Henry VIII has succeeded in ridding himself of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and has crowned as Queen of England his long-term mistress, Anne Boleyn. But despite the birth of a princess, Elizabeth, Anne has twice miscarried and been unable to provide Henry with a male heir.
At Greenwich Palace, courtiers discuss the state of royal affairs: Queen Anne, after less than three years of marriage, is now neglected by the king and there are rumors that his attentions have turned to another, as yet unknown woman. Jane Seymour, the queen’s chief lady-in-waiting, has been summoned to attend her but hesitates at the door to Anne’s chamber. The queen suddenly appears, demanding to know the reason for the court’s uneasy, despondent mood. She admits to Jane that she is herself troubled and asks her page, Mark Smeaton, to sing a song to cheer everyone. But the words of his song remind her of the lost happiness of her first love, which she betrayed in her ambition to marry the king. Alone in her bedchamber, Jane—who is in fact the king’s new lover—is guilt-ridden over her betrayal. Henry appears and passionately declares his love, promising Jane marriage and glory. She is disturbed by his threats about Anne’s future but realizes that it is too late for her to turn back.
Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort, is surprised to meet Richard Percy, Earl of Northumberland, in Greenwich Park. Percy, although banished for being the queen’s former lover, has been recalled from exile by the king. He has heard of Anne’s distress and asks after her. Rochefort answers evasively. Percy admits that his own life has been miserable since he and Anne separated. The king arrives with a hunting party, followed by Anne and her ladies-in-waiting. Henry greets his wife coolly, then tells Percy that he has the queen to thank for his pardon. In fact, the king has arranged Percy’s return as a trap for Anne and is grimly amused at their emotion and embarrassment as they greet each other. He orders Hervey, a councilor, to spy on the couple. Smeaton, who is secretly in love with the queen, is on his way to her apartments in order to return a miniature portrait of her that he has stolen. He hides when Anne suddenly appears, arguing with Rochefort. Rochefort begs Anne to see Percy in the hope that she can persuade him to leave England and avert further danger to them both. Reluctantly, she agrees. Percy enters and is unable to hide that he still loves Anne. She admits that the king no longer loves—and in fact hates—her, but she remains firm and pleads with Percy to leave the realm. Distraught, Percy draws his sword. Smeaton rushes out of hiding to protect Anne, and Rochefort runs in to warn them that the king is approaching. Henry bursts in with Hervey and the court in tow. Smeaton proclaims the queen’s innocence but the furious king seizes the miniature as welcome proof of his wife’s seeming infidelity. He accuses all four of an adulterous conspiracy. Anne, in front of the court, is arrested.
Anne has been imprisoned in her apartments at Westminster Palace in London. Her ladies are anxiously awaiting news of the impending trial when they are suddenly summoned by Hervey to give evidence before the Council of Peers. They leave with the guards. Jane steals in to tell Anne that she can only avoid the death sentence by pleading guilty and confessing her adulterous crimes, thereby allowing the king to divorce her. Anne refuses, cursing the woman who has replaced her in the king’s affections. Jane admits that she is that woman. Shocked, Anne at first dismisses her, but then feels pity for Jane’s desperation. She says it is the king, not Jane, who has betrayed her.
Smeaton has falsely testified under torture to being one of the queen’s lovers. He believes his confession will save her life. Anne and Percy are brought before the council. Anne tells the king that she is ready to die but begs him to spare her the humiliation of a trial. In the following confrontation, Percy claims that he and Anne were married before she became the king’s wife. Anne is unable to deny Percy’s assertion. Even though Henry doubts that there were true vows between the lovers in the past, they have played into his hands and their conviction has become certain. Percy and Anne are led away. Jane pleads with Henry for Anne’s life, but he dismisses her. News arrives of the council’s verdict: the royal marriage is dissolved and Anne and her accomplices are to be executed. Percy discovers that Rochefort has also been condemned as an incestuous conspirator to treason. The two men resolve to meet death bravely together and with Anne.
In her cell at the Tower of London, Anne is in a state of delirium. Before her ladies, her thoughts turn to happier times: the day of her wedding to Henry, her first love for Percy, and finally her childhood at her family home. Hervey and the guards enter and Anne is awakened to the awful reality of her fate. Her fellow prisoners are brought in. Smeaton accuses himself of bringing about her end. Anne embraces Percy and her brother, drifting back into insensibility. When bells and cannon fire are heard, announcing the king’s new marriage, Anne comes to her senses again. She furiously curses the royal couple and goes to face her execution.