Anna Bolena – Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, 7 Sept 2013
Music: Gaetono Donizetti
Libretto: Felice Romani
Conductor: Daniele Rustoni
Director: Alessandro Talevi
Designer: Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer: Matthew Haskins
Cast includes: Serena Farrocchia / Katharine Goeldner / Alastair Miles / Robert McPherson / Faith Sherman / Robyn Lyn Evans
Maria Stuarda – Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, 13 Sept 2013
Music: Gaetono Donizetti
Libretto: Guiseppe Bardari based on the play by Friedrich Schiller
Conductor: Graeme Jenkins
Director: Rudolf Frey
Designer: Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer: Matthew Haskins
Cast includes: Judith Howarth / Adina Nitescu / Alastair Miles / Gary Griffiths / Bruce Sledge / Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
According to Gary Tomlinson, the Italian literary culture of Gaetono Donizetti’s youth was stung into renewal by withering criticism from the controversial French salon hostess and woman of letters Madame de Staël. In an essay that was published in a new Milanese journal in 1816, de Staël reserved her greatest scorn for contemporary opera: ‘You will say to me that in Italy people go to the theatre not to listen, but to meet their close friends in the box and chat. And I will conclude from this that spending five hours a day listening to the so-called words of Italian opera can only dull, through lack of use, the intellect of a nation.’
Of course, far beyond issues of libretto, debates about the intellectual and artistic merits of this or that operatic form relative to others continue to enliven a diverse operatic culture today – not least with regard to Welsh National Opera’s opting to devote (bar a short Tosca revival) its entire autumn season to Donizetti’s so-called ‘Three Queens’ operas set in Tudor times: Anna Bolena (1830), Maria Stuarda (1835) and Roberto Devereaux (1837); a move perhaps less puzzling in that the season is enjoying financial support from long-time Donizetti champions the Peter Moores Foundation among others, as part of their ongoing dual fiftieth anniversary and sponsorship swansong. At any rate, WNO are showing brave commitment in presenting not one, not two, but three works lesser-known to those who are not devotees of Donizetti, or of this particularly febrile period of Italian operatic history.
Donizetti has indeed undergone a revival in recent decades. Whatever his cultural imperative and relative compositional stature, these three operas reveal him as a passionate and – at his best – highly able exponent of the new, Italian operatic ‘romanticism’ which emerged in the wake of de Staël’s critique and the polemical debates which ensued; a romanticism which sought to wed new forms of emotional expression to bold narratives informed by a broader, more Europe-wide historical awareness, but which was intended to bring a more contemporary resonance to the operatic stage. In effect, Donizetti – and his fellow countrymen Giacomo Rossini and Vicenzo Bellini to hugely varying degrees and in different ways – were attempting to divest operatic form with greater literary and dramatic authority. The bloodthirsty history of the English Tudor royals was just one vehicle of many through which Donizetti contributed to the development of opera seria (that is, ‘serious’ as opposed to ‘comic’ opera or opera buffa) in a short but dizzyingly productive career which saw the creation of over seventy operas all told. Anna Bolena was his thirty-fifth and the first to win him international acclaim.
But anyone seeking for historical accuracy in Donizetti’s Tudor series will be disappointed, as Donizetti and librettists Felice Romani (Bolena) and Guiseppe Bardari (Stuarda, with Salvatore Cammarano in Devereaux to come) apply poetic licence in spades for the sake of heightened theatricality. Frustrated, too, will be anyone expecting to see some kind of period spectacle in WNO’s productions this autumn – though I, for one, am relieved that WNO have avoided costume drama cliché. Rather, the company is offering a potentially immersive experience of what these operas are really all about beneath the theatrical conceit; precisely the bel canto or ‘beautiful singing’ unique to this period of Italian opera and which the new, romantic music-dramatic forms of Donizetti and his peers were ultimately intended to showcase. Extreme emotional outpourings are expressed through equally extreme flights of vocal melodic fancy within a framework of stylised musical conventions, and around which everything else revolves – be it plot, backdrop, stage-action, choice of instrumentation or harmonic process (this latter based largely around major keys, lending a bizarrely disjunct quality to the expression of jealousy, hatred and other so-called ‘negative’ emotions).
Which is not to say that the visual design, say, of WNO’s Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda are unimportant or lacked impact as I will shortly come to (the first performance of Roberto Devereaux will be on 2nd October at the Wales Millennium Centre) – but woe betide any company which attempts to stage a bel canto opera with a sub-standard cast. Thankfully, the royal protagonists and courtiers WNO has assembled thus far were – in the main, and including the reliably tremendous WNO chorus – demonstrative of considerable vocal energy and expertise. To my ears, Anna Bolena had the edge overall with some splendid soloists and exceptionally realised ensemble work, in which, at its height, the singers and orchestra breathed as one – conducted, moreover, with superb pace and tightly articulated flair by Daniele Rustoni, notwithstanding the opera’s inordinate length. Robert McPherson was a little thin at the very top of his range but made for a tender Lord Percy, whilst Faith Sherman brought a touching depth to Smeton in trouser role. Alastair Miles’s Henry VIII needed more vocal and dramatic substance. But he cut a suitably despotic figure in an opera that relies not just on its prima donna – here in the rounded, supple coloratura form of Serena Farnocchia, impressive in a famously demanding title role – but in the convincing pairing of the lead with her guilt-ridden maid Seymour, who is, of course, destined to become wife number three at the falling of the axe. Katharine Goeldner proved equal to the challenge, if perhaps not so subtle of vocal command, and the central duet between the two sopranos was a sumptuous highlight of the evening.
Maria Stuarda also boasted a largely fine, capable lead in Judith Howarth (despite some ungainly top notes) – although I struggled to enjoy what, for me, was an often strident quality of tone from her nemesis, the nonetheless largely secure Adina Nitescu as Elizabeth I. Alastair Miles reappeared in a far more comfortable and, indeed, genuinely moving role as Talbot, whilst Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as Maria’s companion Anna, Gary Griffiths as Lord William Cecil and Bruce Sledge as the Earl of Leicester were solid in support. Here, the conductor’s baton was passed to Graeme Jenkins who made cogent a score that is palpably richer in harmonic and melodic content than the earlier Bolena, as well as being more adroitly structured. For all that, I found myself perhaps too aware of experiencing a ‘number’ opera here in Stuarda, having been better beguiled by Rustoni and his team’s deeper musical sympathy the week before.
Undoubtedly, the Stuarda production was a great deal to blame. All three operas have been effectively designed and lit by Madeleine Boyd and Matthew Haskins respectively, with Bolena and Devereaux directed by Alessandro Talevi and Stuarda by Rudolf Frey. On the evidence of the two operas performed thus far, however, it is a pity that Talevi did not also direct the middle opera (though admittedly, we have yet to see what he will do with Devereaux!). First, the design:
In both Bolena and Stuarda, the sets are uniformly black, grey and minimal, of no fixed historic period. The costumes match this for both royals and servants alike (bar the red cloak in which Bolena exits to the scaffold and Stuarda’s flame-red tartan), referencing the Tudor and a more modern, almost militarist-fetishist oppression. Lighting is stark and monochrome – particularly in Stuarda, where strip lights adorn the ceiling in some scenes – manifesting the no doubt psychological reality of the bleak, unrelenting prison of the Tudor court. Indeed, Stuarda’s prison is a partly perspex cage, prominent centre-stage throughout her opera, in and around which the action unfolds. In both operas, any real colour emanates quite deliberately from Donizetti’s extreme vocalised emoting and his orchestral palette. The high walls of the set are, in Bolena, adorned with stags’ heads rather than, say, portraits, evidently alluding to Henry VIII’s predilection for hunting – whether it be for game or for women. The sense of entrapment is heightened by the circular rotation of Bolena’s birthing gown at one point on the revolving floor of the stage; she is, after all, merely one in a succession of unfortunate women who fall victim to Henry’s appetites – as it were, around and around. Within this dark ambience, I found the utilitarian design of the costumes worked well; at once, physically unflattering and flattening of the rigid social hierarchies of the court.
However – and here come the major blots on the landscape – the red leather bodice (complete with proto six-pack and pop-up breasts) that the Scots Queen suddenly reveals in her forgiveness aria is ludicrous, and the manner of its revealing sabotages a rare moment of real psychological development. It is a low point in a Stuarda production full of ill-conceived gestures and sham characterisation, but which slips to absurdity in the second half. In contrast to Talevi’s simpler, more natural delivery and more straightforward Bolena production, Frey has opted for exaggerated, tarty flouncing, alternating with a wooden type of ‘stand and deliver’. Bar the frozen tableau scenes with chorus – which do work – individual movement is stiff, with a distinct lack of chemistry between the characters. Alas, the famous ‘vil bastarda’ duet which earns Stuarda her execution – and which earned Donizetti an outright ban by the authorities in two Italian cities – descends to a catfight which not even the combined vocal artistry of Howarth and Nitescu can ameliorate. Here and elsewhere (not least in Stuarda’s bizarre strip-flirt with Talbot), Frey’s production cuts against both the pathos of the drama (such as it is) and – less forgivably in an opera almost wholly reliant upon the sentiment of its arias – even the singing itself. Sadly, whether or not Frey intended to send up his Donizetti, he succeeds in doing so.
This is a great pity as Donizetti clearly developed as a composer in the five years – and some nine-plus operas – that lie between Bolena and Stuarda, and it would have been fascinating to see his now greater musical daring and subtlety reflected on the stage at WNO rather than the kind of flimsiness that might bolster a modern-day de Staël in her opinions. It is a consolation, at least, that Frey was not in charge of Bolena’s ‘mad scene’ from the first opera in the present Tudor series, which was staged – by Talevi – and sung – by Farnocchia and hand-wringing women’s chorus – with equal and tremendous poignancy, in a distinct dramatic highlight of the season so far. There are other ‘mad scenes’ in opera, of course – not least in Donizetti’s own, later and more famous Lucia di Lammermoor; the deeper poignancy being biographical in that he himself was already succumbing to the syphilis-induced symptoms of derangement which would eventually see him locked away for eighteen months from 1846, prior to his death in 1848. Certainly, even by the time of Lucia in 1839, he was suffering wholesale, with documented symptoms having appeared as far back as 1829 – pre-Bolena and not long after he had married Virginia Vasselli. Perhaps such information makes his adaptation of ‘Home Sweet Home’ in ‘Cielo, a’ miei lunghi spasimi’ all the more wrenching to hear. And perhaps not. For quite possibly, the music itself – arguably amongst his most powerful – suffices in that regard. But knowing of Donizetti’s terrible affliction certainly makes the sheer, prodigious quantity and relentless forward momentum of his output from here until the end of his short life all the more amazing. Hopefully Stuarda is a blip and WNO will be able to embrace more of that development in their production of Devereaux.
Photos used in banner by Robert Workman