Donizetti’s ANNA BOLENA by Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre.


A review by: Julia Gasper. This season WNO is taking on the ambitious project of staging all three of Donizetti’s operas about Tudor history. The Tudor period, of powerful monarchs and rolling heads, attracted Romantic composers seeking dramatic subject-matter. Although the three operas were conceived separately, by performing them in sequence, WNO is enabling us to appreciate them as a great epic, almost like the Ring cycle. The first in the sequence, Anna Bolena, about the tragic downfall of Anne Boleyn, was performed last night and it was a triumph.
The lead rôle of Anna (Anne) Boleyn was sung by the Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia, who thrillingly matched the demands of this extremely, demanding virtuoso part. Her voice is delicious and scintillating, even when performing the fiendishly difficult tropes Donizetti delighted in. From time to time Farnocchia even reminded me of the exquisite Cecilia Bartoli, and that is a compliment indeed. The way Anna is presented, supine on a bed giving birth surrounded by a crowd of male courtiers, in sombre black, emphasizes her vulnerability as a female in what is very much a male-dominated world. She must produce a son or lose the royal favour.
This is an opera with two great soprano rôles, as Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, sung by Katherine Goeldner, is also an important figure. The philandering king has fallen in love with her, and she with him. If she insists on an honourable union, this must mean the fall and death of Anna. Goeldner’s voice is a shade darker than Farnocchia’s but very powerful and she sang with consummate skill.
The appearance of Henry is a bit of a shock, as he is presented as an almost wild figure, with long unkempt hair, a balding pate and a fur-trimmed doublet. Clearly, he is meant to be seen as a ruffian. The rôle was sung by Alastair Miles, whose magisterial voice matched his fierce demeanour. In this opera the sympathy lies with Percy, the man who was betrothed to Anna before her marriage and still loves her. He has the tenor rôle traditionally allocated to the hero. Robert McPherson shone in this part, his voice very brilliant and penetrating. When Henry, who has manipulated him into a compromising situation just to get rid of his unwanted Queen, offers him mercy, he and George Rochford, Anna’s brother, spurn the pardon and agree to die with Anna, martyrs for love. Anna is beloved by everybody except the King. The musician Smeaton, a boy rôle sung by the contralto Faith Sherman, also adores her but is tricked into making a false confession and condemned to death.
In the scene in Anna’s bedroom, we see her dress on a tailor’s dummy, resembling the headless lady display of Kate Middleton’s wedding-dress that our own Queen found so ghoulish in 2011. It made a good point anticipating Anne’s fate. In the last scene the condemned Anna, awaiting her sentence, is almost delirious. She imagines she is a child again, wandering in the grounds of the castle where she first met Percy, her first love. Then she remembers her wedding day and the excitement of marrying the King and being crowned Queen. All of these memories elicit gorgeous new arias! She and Jane have a moving duet where Jane says she wishes Anna could be spared, and Anna forgives Jane but predicts that retribution will fall on her (we know that Jane Seymour did of course die young). Anna protests her innocence one last time to the obdurate King, then prays and dons a blood-red robe before being led to the block. The impact was overwhelming.
The production was a little too sombre visually, with too much black throughout. All the scenery and most of the costumes were black, making it harder to tell characters apart and this does get monotonous in the course of a three-hour opera. However, this is all part of the dark tragic vision of this production and I await the next two operas with impatience. All credit to WNO for not cutting it and letting us enjoy all of it in its full glory.
The handsome young conductor, Daniele Rustini, is a live-wire and was clearly electrifying both the orchestra and the singers. He conducted fit to bust a seam of his jacket. The performance is in Italian but don’t worry – there are surtitles in English so you can follow the dialogue and plot in detail.


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