I’d been pre-warned, before watching Anna Bolena, and by someone who knows his stuff when it comes to opera, that Donizetti isn’t for everyone.
“He’s been compared to Gilbert & Sullivan,” said my friend. Without adding whether or not this was meant as a compliment.
As such, I approached the show (is that the right word?) with more than a little caution. Also, it was to be my partner’s first experience of opera – four years into our relationship, with me having spent the last 2 or 3 years trying to persuade him that he would enjoy it if he could only experience the real thing, live. Really he would.
“Oh dear,” said my friend. “You do realise Anna Bolena is almost 3 hours long, don’t you?”
The opera (Donizetti’s 34th) is being performed in a loose trilogy by the WNO, one of three operas the composer wrote on the subject of the Tudors, alongside Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart, or Mary Queen of Scots to us Anglophones) and Roberto Devereux (about the tempestuous relationship/affair between Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex). Like countless present-day movie makers, Donizetti had a somewhat cavalier attitude towards British history, and obviously – being a Catholic composer, writing for a largely Catholic audience – he takes a somewhat dismal view of the Tudors (and Henry VIII in particular), but if any British royal family was the stuff of opera, it’s the Tudors.
You see, that’s the thing people who haven’t seen or listened to an opera, the ones who think it’s “not for them” don’t tend to realise. The plots of operas are very rarely complicated. In fact, they’re usually sub-Hollyoaks in complexity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert, but of the 9 or 10 I’ve seen performed live, almost all of them revolved around extramarital affairs, and all – and I mean all – of them ended with one or more of the main characters dying. Spectacularly.
In that respect, Anna Bolena ticked all of the boxes. It’s about not one but multiple affairs, real and imaginary. The diabolical Henry VIII (baritone Alistair Miles, looking distinctly Game of Thrones) wants to get rid of his young wife, Anne Boleyn (Serena Farnocchia) and marry his mistress Jane Seymour (Katharine Goeldner). To do so, he invites Anne’s old flame Lord Percy (tenor Robert McPherson) back from exile, hoping they will rekindle their affair so that he can accuse the queen of adultery. Added to the mix we have Smeaton, a young lad (played by soprano Faith Sherman) who is smitten with the queen, and who finds himself embroiled in the whole tawdry mess which follows.
Throughout, the chorus of courtiers – all clad in black, against a similarly single tone black backdrop – chime in with gossip and observations, and things build to the predictable climax in which the disgraced former queen must meet her fate. It’s all very stirring stuff, or at least it would be very stirring stuff if it weren’t for Donizetti’s music. I’ve read other reviews (by people who… you know… know what they’re talking about) that wax lyrical about the complexity of Donizetti’s score, but for me it’s just frustratingly MOR, and I suddenly realised what my friend was talking about when he compared it to Gilbert & Sullivan.
Given its turbulent subject matter, you might expect the yearning and heartbreak to scale vertiginous heights and for the thunder, doom and despair to plumb the depths of hell itself, but it does neither. Instead, what you’re left with are arias that build and build and are then cut short by an awful lot of tum-ti-tum-ti-tum filler. This is used to good effect just once when, near the end, Anne hears the fanfare for the king’s new bride, Jane Seymour, at the exact moment when she – Anne – is facing execution. The horrible contrast between Anne’s despair and this mercilessly upbeat march is truly affecting. Otherwise, it feels like Donizetti is afraid of getting too emotional, of working too hard on his audience’s feelings, and as a result ends up pulling his punches, over and over again.
It’s a shame, because the WNO’s production has all the ingredients in place for a heart-stopping melodrama. The stage design, though a little murky and eye-straining in the first half, opens up into a dramatic, starkly lit space in the second, and a turntable stage is used to impressive effect throughout. Most of the performances are excellent, and the costume design complements the bleak, black set wonderfully.
OK, so I did find myself on the verge of standing up and telling Lord Percy to zip it (every time he opens his mouth, someone gets in trouble), and the libretto makes curious over-use of the word “trembling” (everyone “trembles” in this opera, whatever the context), but none of that is the WNO’s fault, and should be laid more squarely at the feet of Donizetti. Where the Italian composer does excel, however, is in any set-piece involving three or more singers. Here, lines weave in and out of one another and overlap with great dexterity, and the chorus is given plenty of bombast to wrap their vocal chords around.
As with the set design, so the second half is where the opera’s music also picks up the pace, but there’s still a notable absence of anything “hummable”. Not the most important criteria in an opera, perhaps, but still… if you’re a layman like me it’s up near the top of the list, surely.
Where Anna Bolena exceeded expectations – and thus redeemed itself – was in its very last act. Here the staging, performances and – for the best part – the music combined for an edge-of-your-seat climax, with Farnocchia’s Anne donning a dramatic red cloak and utterly dominating the stage before disappearing into a mist of dry ice. Not the tear-jerking finale you – and, presumably, Donizetti – might have hoped for, but definitely enough to quicken the pace.
Even my partner – who rolls his eyes and tuts whenever I insist on listening to Radio 3 – enjoyed it enough to sign up for the next installment, Maria Stuarda. We may have found a convert.