Anna Bolena, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, September 2013Posted on 8 September 2013
Three Queens is the main theme of Welsh National Opera’s Autumn 2013 season, which opened last night with Anna Bolena. This was Donizetti’s first really big success after more than thirty other operas, and its darkly dramatic atmosphere is well-served by Alessandro Talevi’s production. At the start of the opera Anne Boleyn’s power has already waned, and Henry VIII is scheming to get rid of her by bringing back Lord Percy, her one-time lover, from exile. At the end, after a scene of confused delirium she finds herself on the way to the block. The first act in Felice Romani’s excellent libretto sets it all up, leaving the second act for the singers to give it everything, which they do.
Serena Farnocchia was hugely dramatic as Anne in her mad scene just before the end, and her interaction with Jane Seymour in the first scene of Act II was beautifully done. Katharine Goeldner’s Jane had a lovely tone, and she gave a sympathetic portrayal of this lady in waiting who finds herself trapped by the king’s desire and her own response to it, so well illustrated in her fine singing of Per questa fiamma indomita (This uncontrollable flame) in the later duet with Henry. Powerful emotions, with Alastair Miles singing strongly in the bass role of Henry, firmly voiced and coldly controlling. In this production he is a nasty piece of work, thoroughly dislikeable with his bald head, long hair, and finger-less leather gloves giving a Fagin-like appearance, inspiring the accolade of pantomime boos at the end.
The turning point in Act I is when the queen’s 24 year old musician Smeaton returns the portrait pendant of Anne he had stolen, and his soliloquy, so beautifully sung by Faith Sherman, was a high point of the Act. Trapped by the entrance of Percy, he later exposes the pendant in front of the king and the die is cast. Robert McPherson sang Percy with fine tone in the middle register, but overmuch force at times, and Daniel Grice was a noble and steady-voiced Rochefort, brother to Anne. The chorus were magnificent as always, and Robyn Lyn Evans was excellent as Lord Hervey, the court official.
This dark production uses lighting very effectively, occasionally eerie, sometimes cold, but turning to warmth for the expression of human emotions. I liked the balletic arm movements of the ladies in waiting for Smeaton’s first aria, their subtle shifting later when the stage rotated, and the nine horse skulls on the walls at Windsor with massive antlers attached. The skulls looked just like those in the Covent Garden Walküre — perhaps they were.
The drama and melody of Donizetti’s music was fully evident in Daniele Rustioni’s conducting. He gave huge bounce to the overture, and maintained the tension and energy throughout.
I am now looking forward to WNO’s other two Queens, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, in Donizetti’s operas Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux.
All performances of Anna Bolena start at 7 p.m. At Cardiff they continue on Sept 14, 27 and October 4. On tour they all take place on a Wednesday: Swansea, Oct 9; Oxford, Oct 16; Liverpool, Oct 23; Bristol, Nov 6; Birmingham Nov 13, Llandudno, Nov 20; Southampton Nov 27.