wed 17/07/2024

Anna Bolena, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Anna Bolena, Welsh National Opera

Anna Bolena, Welsh National Opera

Donizetti's rewrite of Tudor history is finely sung but still makes for a long evening

Alastair Miles and Serena Farnocchia, an exclusively sexual motivationRobert Workman

“Let the florid music praise,” sing Britten and Auden in their On This Island cycle; and I suppose we must do as we’re told, though aesthetic duty can be a hard taskmaster. For me it cracks its whip in the three Donizetti operas that, inexplicably, comprise almost the entire autumn repertoire of WNO, while other companies are, ironically enough, celebrating Britten’s centenary. The Welsh have just done, it’s true, an admirable Paul Bunyan, Britten’s first opera.

Anna Bolena was not Donizetti’s first, but his thirtieth; and – though it has its moments – it still leaves me hoping nobody revives the previous 29, to say nothing of most of the 35 that followed, only two of which, mercifully, are in the Cardiff schedule.

Last autumn, WNO celebrated Free Spirits (Lulu, the Vixen, and – debatably – Butterfly); this autumn it’s dead Tudor queens and their victims. “Heads will roll,” thunders the publicity, with Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux on the horizon. But in fact his Anne Boleyn doesn’t lose her head, only her mind, before collapsing or, in Alessandro Talevi’s Cardiff production, retreating upstage pursued in orderly fashion by the rest of the cast.

For many reasons, it’s often better enjoyed with the eyes shut

Needless to say, this is by no means the librettist, Felice Romani’s only re-reading of history. Talevi makes a worthy attempt to politicize Anne’s downfall by showing her in childbirth at curtain-up and nursing the poor little scrap (the unwanted future Queen Elizabeth) in her delirium towards the end. But the child is scarcely mentioned in the opera, which represents Henry’s motive for dispatching his second wife as exclusively sexual, while all the other characters are driven to their deaths by an improbable mixture of disinterested love and unblemished honour. The result is psychologically bland, though with outbursts of conflict that of course prompt the best music. But for much of the time the score bounces along quite merrily, in major keys, square phrases and neat cadences, as if blighted passion and brutal death were like Test Match Special interrupted by the shipping forecast.

Well, this isn’t criticism but, clearly, a mental block of mine. So enough of it. Musically the WNO production – played on Saturday to a far from full house – seems to me excellent. But for many reasons, not all of which would it be kind to detail, it’s often better enjoyed with the eyes shut. Serena Farnocchia is vocally brilliant as Anna, particularly touching in her mad scene (including Donizetti’s exquisite take on “Home, Sweet Home”), but also superb in her duet with Jane Seymour, the opera’s one indubitably great scene, and the only one that seriously dissects the moral confusion of its dramatis personae.

Katharine Goeldner’s Jane (pictured right, by Robert Workman) is vocally less serene, more varied and arguably richer in colouring. The two voices make an incredibly interesting pair, playing off well one against the other, or floating in parallel. But they are not an easy duo to watch, partly because Madeleine Boyd has dressed them unbecomingly in short black skirts that, to be frank, suit neither their figures nor their movement. It is, by the way, an almost entirely black and white production, the chorus women clad much like the soloists, and the men in black tunics, like some Ruritanian Gestapo, in neutral, dark, boxed interiors.

Alastair Miles’s Henry VIII is far from the historical image, but on the slender side, long of hair and black of voice, sinisterly authoritative, a well-conceived portrait. His second act trio with Farnocchia and Robert McPherson as Anne’s erstwhile fiancé, Henry Percy, is another high point in a work whose best episodes nearly all come in the long second half. McPherson lacks the con forza element that the high tenor writing seems to need, but sings it with a certain effortless charm that suits the character – more or less a Romane invention - in a naïve kind of way.  Daniel Grice makes as much as possible of Anne’s implausible brother, Rochefort, who goes to the block with Percy purely out of good fellowship. Robyn Lyn Evans strides on and off impressively as the king’s security supremo, Lord Hervey.

Daniele Rustioni conducts with suitable gusto, reminding us that Donizetti’s talents included a precise if uncomplicated ear for orchestral sonority. This is no mean consolation in what, for me, is a very long evening.

Donizetti’s thirtieth opera has its moments but leaves me hoping nobody revives the previous twenty-nine


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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