As its name Anna Bolena implies, this Donizetti opera is about Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. Executed for high treason based on trumped up charges of infidelity, even incest, she was replaced by Jane Seymour, but during the overture we see a silent mime where a queen in white removes her crown and her jewels, observed by a noble lady in a green dress. No, it’s not Anne being observed by Jane, who wears red, but Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon being observed by Anne. She herself is later supplanted during the opera, but as well as glimpsing the past, we see the future too — Anne with her daughter, who later becomes Elizabeth I.
For an English audience the Tudors are a source of endless fascination, so this is all grist to mill, but for Italians of Donizetti’s day their image, in the words of an excellent programme essay by Roger Parker, “was overwhelmingly of a harsh, absolutist form of government: something to illustrate the fact power could and did corrupt those who wielded it, causing them to destroy even those they held dear”. In appropriate Italian style, Lukas Jakobski as Henry VIII was a dominating presence, his powerful bass sweeping aside objections and skilfully using the missteps of others to drive his agenda forward.
As the ill-fated Anne, Linda Richardson warmed up after a slightly pedestrian start, creating a powerful effect at the end of Act 1 as she begs the king not to condemn her, followed by her appalled understanding that he will appoint judges to assess the behaviour of his queen. Suddenly she realises her fate is sealed. At the start of Act 2 her prayer was beautifully delivered, and the subsequent duet with the strongly sung Jane Seymour of Caryl Hughes was particularly notable for Jane’s appeal that Anne confess. Towards the end Ms Richardson beautifully expresses Anne’s delirium, brought about when her musician Smeton (well-sung by Carolyn Dobbin) admits to a false confession he made while foolishly persuaded this was the only way to save the queen. Thus does the king use other’s errors, and when a locket with the queen’s portrait falls from Smeton’s clothing he has the evidence to help him compel the result he wants.
As Anne’s erstwhile lover Percy, whom Henry has cunningly recalled from exile, Jung Soo Yun sang with feeling and huge lyricism. He and the queen’s brother Lord Rochefort, strongly sung by Matthew Buswell, are sentenced to death too. But when Alex Haigh as Hervey the court official announces their reprieve, both these honourable men refuse. If Anne is to die, they will too, and as the executioner’s sword is poised to decapitate Anne we see Henry and Jane behind the screen about to wed. The lights go out, and we are left to admire the final moments of Jenny Miller’s super production, with its simple but effective designs by Nate Gibson.
Anna Bolena was Donizetti’s first big success in 1830, written to a libretto by the eminent Felice Romani, and under the excellent baton of Jeremy Silver singers and orchestra came together, with wonderful quintets and sextets, to bring this fully to life.
Until July 1 — details here.