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Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda,and Roberto Devereux

Trilogy of operas by Donizetti. Performed by the Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre in October '13.
New Theatre, Oxford, 2 George Street, Oxford OX1 2AG, Fri 18 October 2013

October 17, 2013
Maria Stuarda

Opera is spectacle: musically, visually, thematically. This production shot itself in the foot: Rupert Frey’s staging took place for the most part in Stygian gloom. Matthew Haskin’s lighting did show some subtlety, but much of the stage was cast in shadow – visually monotonous and a waste of what little floor space there was.

Much of the stage was occupied by a huge black box. Designer Madeleine Boyd had divided it in two: one half the domain of Mary Queen of Scots (Judith Howarth) and the other that of Queen Elisabeth I (Adina Nitescu).

Although the former was technically a prisoner of the latter, the suggestion seemed to be that in the mirror which divided the two women, their characters and situations reflected one another's as queens and as women - alto egos, no less.

Furthermore, the Queens’ mutual love interest Leicester (Bruce Sledge) was a source of emotional confinement: he held Elizabeth’s captive through her affections. Her dilemma of whether to execute her political love rival, another sort of prison of action, gave the mirroring idea some credence.

A continuous element of visual excitement was wondering how the characters would get up and down from the box, as they manoeuvred themselves across the gap, in high heels, kinky boots, leather bustiers, swinging ballet skirts or plaid and at one point, an orange breastplate perfectly moulded to a pair of pendulous breasts.

Donizetti’s magnificent score – including gorgeous brass and woodwind passages - benefited from Graeme Jenkins' assured and spirited conducting. WNO’s magnificent chorus gave thrilling support to some excellent individual soloists – despite being slotted in and around the massive monolith, with hardly room to draw breath.

Bass Alastair Miles (Talbot) gave a beautifully measured, authoritative performance, particularly in the scene where he washes Maria Stuarda’s feet  before hearing her confession, and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones was vocally delightful,  enhancing through her loyalty and quiet pity, the pathos of her dispossessed Monarch’s journey to the block.

Nitescu’s coarse blustering gave life to the character of Elizabeth, justifying the 'tyrant' label. Howarth gave the most vocally dazzling performance of the evening, which culminated in convincing  heroic grandeur as she faced her fate, arms outspread, neck naked to the axe.

October 16, 2013

Anna Bolena


Donizetti’s Anna Bolena is part of his Tudor trilogy (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) which the Welsh National Opera is performing this week at the New Theatre. Forget your history books, forget Hilary Mantel, this is love and intrigue, innocence and betrayal Italian style, based very loosely on the Tudors - a source of fascination, apparently, for composers in the Romantic period. Donizetti is supposed to have said, ‘I want love – without that all subjects are cold – and let it be violent love.’

Anna Bolena is innocent, wrongly convicted of illicit affairs, a woman who inspires love in all those around her and who goes mad in the end. Giovanna (Jane) Seymour is wracked with guilt at betraying the Queen and begs the king in vain to forgive Anne; Ricardo Percy (actually Henry Percy) dies for Anne. All these ‘facts’ are far from the truth but they make a great tale.

We were warned that Serena Farnocchia, playing the part of Anne Bolena, had a cold but this did not stop her from putting in a stellar performance, swaying from anger to tears to madness. Robert McPherson’s beautiful tenor voice made Lord Percy a very likeable character; in my view, Donizetti’s music is best showcased in the duets, trios and quartets and Lord Percy sings in many of these. The acting as well as the singing was good too: the arias in the second half were particularly moving. Although I did not find Katharine Goeldner convincing as Jane Seymour, the two women sing a very beautiful duet as they await the inevitable outcome of the trial. We must not forget, too, the flamboyant conductor, Daniele Rustioni, whose flourishes were at times a show in themselves.

What did not work for me were the all black costumes and the all black set. I have no problem with experimental productions and I understood the dramatic effect the unrelenting gloom was supposed to have but, in three hours, the only relief for the eyes was Anna at the end wearing white and then red. If the effect was meant to bring out the beauty of the music, it had the opposite effect for me; I found it distracted. The symbolism then of Anna’s blood-red cloak at the end was just too obvious and unsubtle.

However, the Welsh National Opera’s Anna Bolena is a feast for the ears and the much-neglected trilogy deserves this revival.

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