Great Singing but a Drab Set and Dull Costumes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Gaetano Donizetti, Anna Bolena: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Michael Ward (conductor), Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno, 20.11.2013.


Anna Bolena – Linda Ricardson
Giovanna Seymour – Katharine Goeldner
Enrico – Alastair Miles
Lord Percy – Robert McPherson
Smeton – Faith Sherman
Lord Hervey – Robyn Lyn Evans
Lord Rochefort – Stephen Wells


Director, Alessandro Talevi
Designer, Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer, Matthew Haskins

Starting with Anna Bolena in 1830, Donizetti returned to English history in 1834 for Maria Stuarda, based on Schiller’s play, and then again in 1837 for Roberto Devereux. Whilst the time line of the operas is vaguely relevant, certain incidents of the operas are only figments of the imagination, not least the meeting between Elisabeth and Mary Stuart depicted in the second of this trilogy, it being an invention of Schiller for dramatic effect.

I believe this venture by Welsh National Opera is the first time, at least in Britain, that the three works have been linked in productions as a sort of trilogy. The idea is certainly valid. What WNO has done is to take the connection further by the sharing of a basic set and costume designs by Madeleine Boyd. Two of the trilogy, Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux, share a named director, the South African Alessandro Talevi. In Cardiff, and the start of the tour, the two shared the same conductor. It is pleasing that the musical foundations were secure enough to overcome the travails of an unavoidable late cancellation for the Llandudno performance of Anna Bolena with Andrew Greenwood being replaced on the rostrum, at the last minute, by the vastly experienced Michael Ward, who I believe was new to this opera.

The Peter Moores’ Foundation’s Swansong Project has provided funding for this adventurous trilogy. Over the past thirty years the Foundation has provided very welcome support for various WNO singers and activities. It has also supported other arts projects such as Opera Rara recordings, including many rarely performed Donizetti operas that would not otherwise be heard. However, like all good things, it is now coming to an end. If I regret the sparse designs, perverse costumes and other aspects adopted in these performances of this trilogy, it is no reflection on that support or excellent the generosity of the Foundation and to which I pay tribute.

Stressing the Tudor connection in the publicity would have left a British audience expecting certain dress patterns. What they got was black, black and yet more black. The men, chorus included, were all garbed in black of indeterminate period. The women of the chorus wore ballerina length skirts and a kind of plastic bodice. After Anna Bolena went to the block attired in a colourful gown, the earliest colour to intrude this trilogy the next colour seen was in part two when the eponymous Maria Stuarda appeared dressed in a modern plaid skirt in the Dress Tartan of her clan, complemented by tan heeled boots. As she awaited her fate she appeared in a maroon breastplate, looking like a refugee from Verdi’s Giovanni D’Arco, but with excess bosom development!  There was a little colour for Queen Elisabeth in the last of the trilogy, but apart from dull epaulettes for some of the men, a soiled birthing sheet was the limit for this fist part. There were many negative comments among the audience about the overall drabness of the set and costumes.

Specific to Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux, the three black walls of the stage was occasionally back lit for some shadow effects, otherwise the bleakness in Anna Bolena was hardly alleviated by the presence of antlered skulls on the walls or the rotating stage complete with the cradle of Anna’s only live born child; or was it one of her stillborn ones, perhaps even a son, that she cradled in her arms?

As to the opera itself, first some historical facts. With Anna Bolena Donizetti hit the big time. It was his thirty-first opera and the first that was seen outside Italy. He had enjoyed some success with Zoraida Di Granata (see review) first performed at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, in January 1822. It had helped mark Donizetti out as one of the young Italian opera composers who would vie to assume Rossini’s crown, the grant maestro having decamped to the better musical standards in Paris

As always in Italy at that period there was frequent political manoeuvring in the field of opera presentation with status and money the names of the game. In May 1830, the Duke of Litta and two rich associates formed a Society to sponsor opera at La Scala whose franchise was due for renewal. They were concerned to raise the musical standards that had seen Rossini, Meyerbeer and others decamp to Paris. They engaged several of the leading singers of the day including Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Giovanni Rubini. Donizetti and Bellini, whom they considered to be the two best active Italian composers. They were each contracted to write an opera for the season to a libretto set by the renowned Romani, widely recognised as the best in the business. However, Litta and his associates failed to secure La Scala for their plans, which were realised at the elegant Teatro Carcano. The Duke and his colleagues chose well as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena was premiered to acclaim on December 26th, the opening of the Carnival Season, and soon after travelled widely abroad, the first Donizetti opera to do so. The Bellini opera, La Sonnambula also enjoyed a significant success later in the season.

My colleague, Glyn Pursglove, in reviewing the premiere in Cardiff on September 7th was enthusiastic about Serena Farnocchia in the title role admiring her commanding stage presence and singing. By the time of the tour she had been replaced by Linda Ricardson, about whom I can be equally enthusiastic. Her tall elegant stage presence and commited acting, allied to fabulous secure high notes and coloratura were well appreciated by the audience as well as me, not least at the end of the mad scene made famous by Callas. If she lacked some lower chest notes she did not fake them either. Her interactions with Katharine Goeldner as Giovanna Seymour, her rival for Henry’s favours, were beautifully acted, particularly the second act duet as Seymour confesses her relationship with Enrico. Miss Goeldner, who appeared in the role at New York’s metropolitan Opera opposite the queen of Anna Netrebko, sang throughout with warm toned, steady but expressive singing, her sincere and committed acting complementing that of her soprano colleague. Faith Sherman as the musician Smeton whose manoeuvrings inadvertently gave Henry reason to condemn Anna, was a little bland vocally and in her acting.

As Percy, Robert McPherson’s acted with conviction whilst his pleasingly plangent tone coped well with the high tessitura that Donizetti wrote for the formidable Rubini, ever famous for his encompassing of the infamous high D in Bellini’s I Puritani. As King Henry, Enrico in the opera, Alastair Miles was not in the kind of voice that he is best remembered for. He bestrode the stage, but his wig and lean figure did little to convince as to who he was supposed to be. Stephen Wells standing in for the ailing Daniel Grice as Rochfort did so with secure tone and good stage presence.

Robert J Farr 



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