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Serena Fanocchia as Anne Boleyn [Photo by Robert Workman]
05 Oct 2013

Anna Bolena, Welsh National Opera

Welsh National Opera's new production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena is the first part of their trilogy of Donizetti's Tudor operas, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux.

Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Serena Fanocchia as Anne Boleyn [Photo by Robert Workman]


All three use the same set designed by Madeleine Boyd (who also did the costumes) with lighting by Matthew Haskins

Boyd's long term collaborator, director Alessandro Talevi directed Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux, whilst Maria Stuarda is directed by Rudolph Frey. We took advantage of WNO' performances of the three operas back to back over a weekend in Cardiff at the Wales Millennium Centre, with Daniele Rustioni conducting Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux and Graeme Jenkins conducting Maria Stuarda.

We saw Talevi's deeply dramatic production of Anna Bolena on 4 October 2013 with thrilling performances from Katharine Goeldner as Giovanna Seymour, Serena Farnocchia as Anna Bolena, Faith Sherman as Smeton, Alastair Miles as Enrico, and Stephen Wells (replacing an ailing Daniel Grice) as Lord Rochefort, Robert McPherson as Lord Percy and Robyn Lyn Evans as Hervey. Daniele Rustioni conducted, he and the orchestra gave us thrillingly dramatic account of the overture, thankfully not too driven but still high tension.

When the curtain rose, Boyd's set was a huge black box with a few references to Tudor iconography, there were skulls of stags heads on the walls and the black on black designs of the walls could be seen as referencing the style of Tudor timber framed houses. The chorus were all in black, with the women given a very strong look which involved dresses with very full skirts and a black leather bodice/bustier over the top. We learned how subtly stylish Boyd's designs were later in the act when, during Smeton's aria, the women sat down to reveal subtly coloured shot-silk under-linings to the skirts. Throughout the opera colour was used sparingly but to very strong effect.

From the outset, Talevi's production was darkly dramatic. There was no attempt to re-created Tudor England and the court of Henry VIII, instead we were given a court governed by fear and power. Talking to Talevi at the interval it was clear that his prime intentions were to make the relationships in the opera work, to provide a context for Anna's breakdown.

There seemed to be another vein of inspiration. During the opening chorus we saw, on a revolve, a woman in a shift having a baby which was born dead and taken away. This was a clear reference to Anne Bolyen's later history, but visually the images on stage reminded us of the Anglo-Portuguese artist Paula Rego's strong images of dark fairy tales.

Talevi and Boyd (aided by Matthew Haskins dramatic lighting) made no attempt at jolly, crowd pleasing moments; this was a tense and intense drama which progressed on slow build towards the denouement, Anna's mad scene. What was admirable was the Talevi worked with the music, at no point did you feel a mismatch between music and drama. At conductor Daniele Rustioni's hands Donizetti's sprung rhythms were magnificently done, and these were used by Talevi to help create the drama. Productions of Donizetti's serious operas can have their Gilbert and Sullivan moments (Sullivan being much indebted to Donizetti) with a mismatch between sound and drama (jolly bouncing choruses and the like), but never here.

It helped that the title role was sung by Serena Farnocchia, an Italian soprano whose voice is far more spinto than coloratura which is admirable in this role. Farnocchia brought a strong intensity to the performance and a thrilling edge to the voice. She was well able to cope with all of Donizetti's fioriture and we were treated to some thrilling, and some subtle singing. She has a darkly dramatic voice, but with a nice focus to it and, as I have said, a thrilling edge. Some of her top notes lacked elegance and ease, but by then Anna was severely under pressure, This was a masterclass in how to use Donizetti's complex vocal lines to develop character. She never showed off, but this made her intense performance all the more impressive. Through the opera, it was Anne's interactions with other characters which gave us the engine for the drama, and Farnocchia was strongly partnered by the other members of the cast. But everything led, of course, to the final scene. Here we returned to the opening as Farnocchia was back wearing her shift, and cradling a non-existent baby. She spent a lot of the time crouching in the empty cradle.

This was a piece of strong drama on Talevi's part, and there was no sense from either him or Farnocchia that this mad scene was merely a showpiece. Nor, thankfully, did we ever get the sense that Talevi wished the opera different to what it was, at all times we were given a strongly characterised performance that went with the grain of Donizetti's music and with some impressive Personenregie.

Talevi and Boyd pulled of something of a coup at the end of the opera. The back of the box had a pair of huge doors which opened, in act one these revealed the forest for the hunting scene. At the end of act two these opened as the way the prisoners were being taken to their execution, but not before the women had brought on Farnocchia's dress. Over her shift she put on a magnificent vermilion dress, a thing of gorgeous crumpled silk with a long train. The resulting image was strong when Farnocchia faced the audience for her final aria and even strong when she turned to exit into the void at the back.

Robert McPherson was Percy, the man whom Anna loves and whom Enrico tricks into returning to court to provide him with an excuse to get rid of Anna. McPherson has a very forward, bright, tightly focused voice with a narrow but brilliant tone. Percy is a bit of a killer role, it sits rather high and is quite dramatic, I've heard tenors tire before their big act two aria. McPherson seemed to have a brief wobble, but it was only that and he paced himself admirably. He was suitably ardent in act one, without being too demented and he and Farnocchia had a believably will they/won't they sort of relationship during their fine duet at the end of the act. In act two Percy has to decide to die rather than live without Anna, a piece of operatic foolery which McPherson brought off well. His final aria was profoundly moving with some fine singing and when needed, the odd thrilling note. Granted his top notes sounded a bit tight, but in the context of his voice they worked well and this period of music suits him.

The eminence gris of this whole drama was Alistair Miles's Enrico, more war lord than Tudor king, he was bald but with long hair at the back merging with the huge fur collar of his leather jacket, and a very visible chain mail cod-piece to emphasise his virility. Miles was superb in conveying the control and power that the man exerted and helped make complete sense of the drama. This Enrico was far more of a monster than I have seen in previous productions, but it worked; partly of course because Miles made Enrico a very sexy monster, you could see why he drew the women.

His latest squeeze was Giovanna Seymour, played by Katharine Goeldner. The role is very much the seconda donna, she has her big aria at the beginning of act one and her big scene in act two at the beginning of that, with the character disappearing for large tracts of the rest of the opera. But what there is, is terrific. Goeldner was announced as suffering from a throat infection, and her opening aria had its uncertain moments but by the time we got to the act two confrontation with Farnocchia, Goeldner was on terrific form. She has quite a rich mezzo-soprano voice with a noticeable vibrato but also a remarkable facility with fioriture, so she brought quite a distinctive sound to Giovanna Seymour. The act two confrontation is one of the strongest scenes in the opera and, played at the front of the stage, the two women were both on intense form, this was gripping musical theatre.

Goeldner's scenes with Alistair Miles were equally as strong. In act one, he prepares to have sex with her and gradually unwraps the many under layers of her skirt, when finally reaching his goal only to be told by Goeldner that she no longer wants to be his mistress. A nice touch. In act two, Goeldner's Giovanna is yo-yoing almost as much as Farnocchia's Anna, and Goeldner's scene with Miles made a great counterpoint to Farnocchia's scene with MacPherson in the previous act.

Faith Sherman made a passionate Smeton, for much of the time she has to act in a vacuum as Farnocchia's Anna was completely unaware of Smeton's passion. Sherman has a nicely warm voice though perhaps her fioriture were occasionally smudged, but against that was the lovely way she moulded phrases and conveyed the young man's intense passion. His/her big scene is towards the end of act one, where he is alone in Anna's chamber, here represented simply by a mannequin wearing Anna's shift. Sherman made this work well, and really made us care for the young man.

Stephen Wells made a nice showing as Rochefort, standing in at short notice. His prison scene with McPherson in act two was perhaps not as homo-erotic as some stagings I have scene. And Robyn Lyn Evans clearly relished playing Hervey as one of Enrico's heavies.

The chorus were on superb form, and Donizetti gives them plenty to do in this opera and Talevi used them extensively to create the right oppressive theatrical atmosphere.

As I have said conductor Daniele Rustioni gave us one of the most dramatic accounts of Donizetti's score that I have heard, combining nicely sprung rhythms with intense drama without ever feeling that he was driving the opera too hard, always sympathetic to the singers and leaving them space. There was rarely a moment when music and drama did not interleave well. The orchestra were on strong form. I have happy memories of Charles Mackerras's 19th century Italian opera performances with WNO and it is good that they are continuing the tradition.

WNO are to be commended for assembling such a strong cast, particularly in the context of performing three Donizetti operas all requiring similar forces, a huge undertaking. A recording of the performance would probably indicate that there were high notes which were less than ideal or patches of smudged passage-work, but all performances were intelligently within both the drama and Donizetti's music.

Visually the production was intensely stylish and dramatic without feeling that Talevi and his team had imposed themselves. This showed too in the way Talevi drew such finely dramatic performances from cast. On this showing, the Donizetti Tudor's trilogy is off to a strong start.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Giovanna Seymour: Katharine Goeldner, Anna Bolena: Serena Farnocchia, Smeton: Faith Sherman, Enrico:Alastair Miles, Rochefort: Stephen Wells, Percy: Robert McPherson, Hervey: Robyn Lyn Evans. Daniele Rutioni: conductor, Alessandro Talevi: director, Madeleine Boyd: designer, Matthew Haskens: lighting. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 4 October 2013.

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