Review: WNO - Anna Bolena @ WMC
I had started off this season of Tudor reign with an introductory discussion with WNO's Chief Executive, David Pountney two nights before Anna Bolena. For an hour-and-a-half, a panel of experts yakked about the Tudor period, the operas and these three new productions. This time of neo-Tudor mania has been stifling over the years. No other era in our distant history has sparked such frantic enthusiasm and cultural appreciation. But where do we go from here?
WNO have unashamedly jumped on the Tudor bandwagon to present to us ten hours of Donizetti’s operas in this era. Although the three operas (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) are not a trilogy, they have been presented to us in the chronological order the composer had written them. They are bel canto works (Italian for beautiful singing) and all three intensely focus on the real-life female characters. WNO had left behind this genre of opera and are only now regaining the love affair with the early 19th century Italian style. We will see more Rossini and Bellini in the future also.
Even in Donizetti’s time, a bit of historical fiction was fair game and certain events from history are changed into the operatic sphere. If you don’t think you know the names, it’s because these are the Italian equivalent of the English names: Anna Bolena is Ann Boleyn, Maria Stuarda is Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) and Roberto Devereux is Robert, Earl of Essex. Strange to think just how exotic a 19th century Italian audience would have found Tudor England. Donizetti wrote over 70 operas and 193 songs. So with this Tudor period, I would for the first time become well acquainted with his prolific and stylistic output.
It turns out that the three works will use the same sets for obvious practical reasons. I’ve yet to see three new productions in one season. So this is just common sense. Here the opera opens with Anna after she has just had one of several miscarriages. She is seen flailing on her bed as the chorus hold her dead baby. They are all on a huge revolving stage and the set is a sort of mock-Tudor interior with deer skulls covering the walls. All this is very darkly lit, which wouldn’t let up for the whole of the evening. This was the first time in a long time where I find myself saying I didn’t care for this staging or the costumes. The wearings of the company felt like bondage gear. Black leather, fur, Henry VIII given bikers glove. It was all very kinky. I almost expected a swing to come downâ€¦
Around the venue I heard many a snide remark about the production from both press and public. Yet through it all I found myself agreeing with them. Director Alessandro Talevi may have wanted it to almost look like Stalin’s Soviet setting with dimness and bleak rooms. This is evident but feels like more of the candles only feel we get through history since that was there source of light in the nighttime. The revolving set was a nice touch and perhaps epitomises the forever turning and shifting view of these characters from the past. We can create our own Ann Boleyn since she divides people and has formed a cult around her.
One lady declared to her partner, "The words just don’t fit the music". She was talking of the dramatic text of the libretto alongside the rather sumptuous and cheery music coming from the orchestra pit (they played grand as always). This has been the case in opera since its beginnings. The rules of the day determine just how music should sound, even if the events on stage become very heated. You only need to look at WNO's Jephtha, to see just how powerful things become. It was only in the last two centuries that we saw music propelled into greater and more dynamic styles allowing for much more drama in its writing. I felt tempted to tell her that.
There were two types of booing in the curtain call at the end of the evening. The one type was for Alistair Miles who played Henry VIII, and is always funny when an audience boo a character rather than the performer (I like to hiss as well). The quieter yet still apparent next set of booing was when the director and designers came out. I expected this yet was still surprised.
The singing, as expected is world-class. Serena Farnocchia was our doomed beheaded Queen. Her glowing textures and grabbing firmness of the role was a revelation. Robert McPherson as Ann’s former lover Lord Percy had a nasal quality that even for a tenor, didn’t always work; still one heck of a singer though. Faith Sherman has the trouser role of the young musician Mark Smeaton. Women playing men in opera is more common then you’d think. Her tomboyish charms and naÃ¯ve portrayal are what confirm Henry’s accusations (Ann’s locket being a MacGuffin or plot device to the story).
This was the longest of the lot and it felt like it. If the staging hadn’t been so severe and demanding, perhaps we could have enjoyed it more. You should see these works for yourself.
What will the other two operas ensue?
Related Article: Review: Anne Boleyn @ RWCMD