Farnocchia and Goeldner Star in Opening to WNO’s Donizetti Trilogy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Donizetti, Anna Bolena (Production Premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera Daniele Rustoni, conductor, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 7.9.2013 (GPu)
Anna Bolena – Serena Farnocchia
Giovanna Seymour – Katharine Goeldner
Enrico – Alastair Miles
Lord Percy – Robert McPherson
Smeton – Faith Sherman
Lord Hervey – Robyn Lyn Evans
Lord Rochefort – Daniel Grice

Conductor – Daniele Rustoni
Director – Alessandro Talevi
Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Movement – Maxine Braham
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris
Musical Preparation – Stephen Wood
Language Coach – Marco Canepa
Stage Manager – Julian Johnson
Production Manager – Robert Pagett


Our Jacobean dramatists frequently set their bloodiest and darkest tragedies in Italy – plays such as Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi or Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Italy being exotically dangerous and Catholic – so there is a nice historical and cultural irony in the fact that for an Italian romantic composer such as Donizetti, English history (England being exotically dangerous and Protestant) provided an appropriate setting for works of similar blood and darkness, a fashion in part encouraged by the Europe-wide popularity of Walter Scott’s fiction.

I know of no reason to imagine that Donizetti himself, or anyone else, imagined he was writing the fisrt work in a Tudor trilogy when he composed Anna Bolena in 1830. Maria Stuarda didn’t follow until 1834 and Roberto Devereux in 1837. Three different librettists were used in the three operas and, Donizetti being notoriously prolific, some twenty-one other operas were composed between Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux – the Tudors were hardly dominating Donizetti’s imagination to the exclusion of other things! Yet WNO’s idea of presenting these three operas as a trilogy, thus forming the spine of their Autumn season, has much to be said for it, even if the existence of such a ‘trilogy’ is hardly a fact of operatic history. Much of what the three operas share is the stuff of most of Donizetti’s contributions to opera seria: conflicted and extreme passions, love thwarted or distorted, the counterpoint of lust and love, the exploitation of love for political ends – what Catherine Clément called “la défaite des femmes” in the title of her influential book of 1979, L’Opéra ou la Défaite des femmes: female rivalry, tyrannical rulers, the corruptions of court life and so on. But these three operas also have a certain continuity of a sort absent elsewhere in Donizetti’s enormous output – Elizabeth I appears as a character in both Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux and, in this production of Anna Bolena, if not in Felice Romani’s libretto, she puts in brief appearances, as a babe in arms, at the beginning and the end. The plot of Anna Bolena is echoed, with some gender reversals, in Roberto Devereux. Further judgements as to how far these opera really constitute a trilogy must await the two productions to come.

Alessandro Talevi’s production is set within a black box on three walls of which skeletal animal skulls, well-antlered, hang as hunting trophies and function both as memento mori and as reminders of the hunting and entrapment so central to the events of the opera. Lighting is dim, costumes are almost unrelievedly black. The mood, and the sense of confinement within an ominous destiny, could hardly be clearer. In common with more than a few bel canto operas Anna Bolena isn’t rich in implicit action; the crafting of the libretto, that is to say, both in terms of the design of individual scenes and the wording of the sung text, rarely demands a specific physical realisation. The tendency is towards on-stage stasis, a tendency which a modern director will inevitably want to fight against. Talevi overdoes the use of the revolving stage and there are moments when anonymous figures not directly involved in the emotional situation march with unknown purpose (and somewhat distractingly) across the stage. But at several key moments Talevi isn’t afraid to accept the lack of busy movement and let the music sing out for itself. And what splendid music much of it is, music which was, on the whole, very well served by singers and orchestra. From the opening moments of Donizetti’s kaleidoscopic overture, flickering from the hectic to the tender, the stormy to the calm, it was clear that Daniele Rustoni was entirely at home with Donizettian idiom, and the orchestral work was crisp and supportive throughout.

I was impressed by Serena Farnocchia when I heard her on a recording of Rossini’s Stabat Mater with Asher Fisch and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (Helicon HEL029661), but this was the first time I had heard her live. She proved a commanding stage presence and sang with precise expressive force throughout. In Act I her powerful but controlled interpretation of ‘Io seniti sulla mia mano’ was beautifully shot through with growing awareness of the contradictions of her situation; Later she was both vocally brilliant and deeply moving in the Act II mad scene. But the best things in the opera are not solo arias but explorations of relationships, above all that of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour (Anna Bolena and Giovanna Seymour as they are in Felice Romani’s libretto). Their long scene together in Act II, is the most intense episode in the opera (and it is constructed somewhat episodically) and Farnocchia and Katharine Goeldner did full justice to it – their ‘dialogue’ perfectly paced and climaxed, their two voices, Goeldner’s a little fuller and more tonally various than Farnocchia’s purer soprano, combining and counterpointing perfectly. As the musician Smeton (historically Mark Smeaton) Faith Sherman acquitted herself well in a difficult ‘trouser’ role.  ‘Come innocente, giovane’ was sung with lyrical grace in Act I and throughout she communicates Smeton’s naivety, so dangerous to himself and to others.

The men in the cast are, on balance, less persuasive. Alastair Miles’ Henry VIII (Enrico) is dramatically most convincing when most baffled by things beyond his comprehension, such as love and loyalty. At moments, but not consistently, he achieves the necessary menace, but he didn’t really seem to be acting with his voice and the characterisation failed to convince completely. Nor was he entirely comfortable with demands of Donizetti’s vocal lines. Generally more comfortable was Robert McPherson as Percy, though there was sometimes an emptiness of tone in the cruelly high passages Donizetti writes for the character. McPherson made an attractive figure without quite persuading one to believe in Percy’s combination of genuine bravery and besotted foolishness. (The fault was perhaps Romani’s as much as the singer’s). Robyn Lyn Evans was a stern and efficient Hervey, while Daniel Grice did much of what can be done with the undeveloped figure of Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort.

The chorus were on fine form, especially the women thereof, used as they are almost like a Greek chorus to register the emotional convolutions of their mistress, Anna. The male chorus is given rather less of musical or dramatic significance and, in this production at least, is reduced to standing and delivering rather too often, or to pacing to and fro with an air of purposefulness which is not always explained or easy to interpret.

Yet, although the production finds some aspects of the work intractable, this is an Anna Bolena well worth seeing (and even more, hearing). Donizetti almost always feels theatrically thin if one mentally compares him with Verdi, but of course the comparison is unfair. Verdi had Donizetti (and others) to learn from. Serena Farnocchia’s interpretation of the title-role and her interaction with Katharine Goeldner’s Giovanna Seymour will, I am sure, live long in my memory, much longer than any of the areas of relative weakness in the production. I, at least, look forward eagerly to the remainder of the trilogy.

Glyn Pursglove