Sex, Crime and Royalty: a very British Anna Bolena at Zurich Opera

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Donizetti, Anna Bolena: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Enrique Mazzola (conductor). Zurich Opera, Zurich, 5.12.2021. (JR)

Diana Damrau (Anna Bolena) and Luca Pisaroni (Henry VIII) (c) Toni Suter

Director – David Alden
Set designer – Gideon Davey
Choreography – Arturo Gama
Lighting – Elfried Roller
Video – Robi Voigt
Dramaturgy – Michael Küster

Henry VIII – Luca Pisaroni
Anne Boleyn – Diana Damrau
Jean Seymour – Karine Deshayes
Lord Rochefort – Stanislav Vorobyov
Smeaton – Nadezhda Karyazina
Sir Hervey – Nathan Haller

Before the opera started, Intendant, Andreas Homoki, appeared on stage, thankfully not to announce the indisposition of one of the singers but to say that the management had decided to dedicate the evening’s performance to Edita Gruberová, who died some weeks ago. Gruberová was a star of the bel canto repertoire, appearing at Zurich Opera for over 40 years in 17 different roles and nearly 200 performances. In 2018 she celebrated her 50th stage appearance with a gala concert at Zurich Opera, before retiring one year later. Anna Bolena was one of her principal roles. The audience held a reverential minute’s silence in her memory.

Not everyone thinks bel canto operas are the best thing since sliced bread. The leading composers of this genre are Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Whilst the operas certainly showcase the voice as a beautiful instrument, they are often short of catchy tunes. So it is with Anna Bolena, where the first act, full of dramatic incident, is a mite short of melody. Act II slows down the action (hardly gripping, when everyone knows how the opera ends) but the score blossoms. Strangely, there is no mention in the opera of the reason for King Henry’s wish to get rid of his wife through the use of trumped up allegations of adultery: the fact that she could not bear him a male heir.

Anna Bolena is one of the Tudor trilogy, each with a different librettist; while Anna Bolena is historically the first (1536), the stories are far apart chronologically – Elizabeth I is still only a small child. In Maria Stuarda we witness the fight (in 1587) between the Queens of England and Scotland, and in Roberto Devereux we see treason at Elizabeth’s Court in 1601.

David Alden directed the Maria Stuarda in Zurich a few years ago (review click here) and retains the same set design, a light grey back wall onto which he can project video images, skulls, castles, woodland, as appropriate. In front of that, he lowers wood panelling to depict the interior of a royal palace, with a roaring log fire. Costumes are a hotchpotch – historically correct and luxurious for the royals, British clothing from the 1940s and 1950s for the ladies-in-waiting and Courtiers, complete with dark suits and bowler hats and, for some of the ladies, beehive hairdos. Alden introduces humour into the otherwise grim plot by throwing in some stereotypical ideas, umbrellas to accentuate the typical British weather, and the lawn in the archery scene is shown being meticulously clipped. There is also a surreal element reminiscent of Magritte – the bowler-hatted Courtiers don ghoulish masks in the scene where Anne and her ‘lovers’ are all sentenced to death.

Elizabeth, Anna’s daughter, was only two years old when her mother was beheaded, but for this production she is a few years older, so she can play a more active part (though mute, of course) in the proceedings.

Current bel canto diva Diana Damrau sings the role of Anna for the first time; it took her quite a while to warm up, and some of the top notes were too much of a squall. She came into her own in Act II, particularly impressive whenever singing quietly. I was, however, not convinced by her acting skills, there was very little visible emotion. She was often outshone, in all respects, by Karine Deshayes, whose forthright mezzo always caught the ear; visually perhaps a little too advanced in years for the part. Smeaton is an unusual contralto role, taken excellently in this production by the young Russian singer, Nadezhda Karyazina. Both her voice and dramatic talent caught attention.

Italian bass Luca Pisaroni was a first-rate King Henry, sneering in both appearance and sound, a resonant and forceful bass. Stanislav Vorobyov as Lord Rochefort was more noticeable for his drunken antics than his firm bass voice; Alexey Neklyudov as Lord Percy has some of the best arias, a strong tenor but rather stretched at the top. Canadian tenor Nathan Haller enjoyed his role as the creepy one-armed sinister assistant to the King, his light tenor suited the part admirably.

In the pit, Enrique Mazzola has worked on a new edition of the opera, in conjunction with the Fondazione Donizetti in Bergamo, and followed Donizetti’s original markings in the score. He caressed each phrase and galvanized the orchestra into an excellent showing. The overture was a pure delight – even if it does sound like Rossini.

John Rhodes

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