It was the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, but I was otherwise engaged at the First Night of the new production by Welsh National Opera of Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. This is one of three famous Donizetti operas set in the Tudor period (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) which I was slightly surprised to learn are collectively often described as the “Three Donizetti Queens”; I’m not sure what this implies about the erstwhile Earl of Essex. Anyway, as a fan of Italian bel canto I decided I just had to go to see Anna Bolena in Cardiff, even though it meant a trek back to Brighton yesterday. Hopefully I’ll be able to see the other two Queens in due course.
Anna Bolena is Donizetti’s imagining of the last days of the life of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, so it’s basically the dark story of a young woman trapped in a web of intrigue and betrayal, a story made all the darker by the fact that it is based on real events. I wonder if such a plot would have ever have been considered plausible if it hadn’t actually happened?
The opera begins with Anna already having lost favour with her husband Enrico (Henry VIII), who is intent on ditching her in favour of Jane (Giovanna) Seymour (who would shortly become Wife Number Three), but he first has to find a pretext to have her got rid of. Enrico lays a trap involving her brother, George Boleyn (the Lord Rocheford), the young musician Smeaton and Anna’s ex, Lord Percy, into which they and Anna duly fall. The hapless Smeaton confesses to having had an affair with Anna in the mistaken belief that she would be spared if he did so. Unfortunately, this amounts to an admission of treason. Despite Jane Seymour’s plea to Enrico to spare Anna’s life, she is condemned to die. The opera ends with all four people implicated in the plot walking off the stage to face execution, reconciled to their fate.
Of course the story is familiar from school history lessons, but what is especially compelling about it how it is told in this context is how the opera draws the audience into the character and innermost thoughs of the protagonists. For examples, Anna is more complex than you might imagine. It is true that she is naive, and out of her depth in a court so filled with plots and snares, but she is also at the same time ambitious and determined. Anna’s relationship with her rival Jane Seymour is also subtly nuanced, their deep fondness for each other demonstrated in a truly wonderful duet between soprano (Anna) and mezzo (Giovanna). The only real weak spot as far as characterization goes is Enrico, who comes across as little more than a pantomime villain (even to the extent that he received humorous boos on his curtain call). Of course Henry’s behaviour was tyrannical, but the drama would have worked more convincingly if there were at least something about him (other than his crown) that made Anna and Giovanna both adore him so much..
In typical bel canto style the voices of the singers are often extremely exposed, with the orchestra taking a back seat to a succession of dazzling coloratura passages with very little doubling of the vocal line to act as a safety net. At times, Donizetti’s music is little more than a basic backing track, but there is gorgeous orchestral writing in there too where the drama requires it. And that’s the point. Bel canto is not and never has been just about beautiful singing; the great operas in this genre also have great dramatic power and emotional intensity.
Serena Farnocchia’s Anna Bolena (soprano) was ably matched in beauty and clarity of voice by Katharine Goeldner as Giovanna Seymour (mezzo soprano). Faith Sherman (contralto) sang the part of the boy Smeaton with great sensitivity. Alastair Miles was also pretty good as Enrico, but I think the role suits someone with a more powerful bass voice. Robert McPherson as Lord Percy sang accurately enough but his lightish tenor voice has a rather nasal edge to it which took me quite a while to get used to.
The staging is stark and rather minimal, with just a few references to the Tudor period in items of furniture and in the style of the costumes (which are mainly black) but otherwise very little in terms of scenery. Very effective use was made of the revolving centre of the stage which provided movement without distracting from the most important aspect of the opera, namely the emotional turmoil of the characters on stage. The various elements of the staging and music came together in stunning fashion during Anna’s `Mad Scene’ near the end of Act II in which, delirious on the eve of her execution, she lapses into a trance-like state and relives happier moments while her friends gradually drift away into darkness. The lighting is sombre throughout the production, but in the Mad Scene Anna takes on a ghostly appearance. Musically speaking, this scene is quite famous – there’s an amazing version with Maria Callas as Anna here- but I found the cumulative effect of the elements of the life performance quite overwhelming. I’ll have to add this one to my list of pieces of music likely to make me fall to bits and thus to be avoided on trains…
A word too for the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under conductor Daniele Rusitioni who played the gorgeous music impeccably. And another word for the Chorus of Welsh National Opera who were also excellent, not just in their singing but also in their wider contributions onstage.
All in all, a very fine night at the opera. The only real disappointment for me was that there were so many empty seats. It’s true that Anna Bolena isn’t one of the best known operas, but it is a gem. I hope this production gets the audience it deserves. And I also hope I can get to see the rest of the Tudors!
PS. I notice that the Guardian review has given it 4 stars. Bit stingy, possibly..