Small picture of Donizetti

 

 

 

Donizetti's Tudor Trilogy

Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux

 

Welsh National Opera, Millennium Theatre, Cardiff and touring,

September-November, 2013.

 Photographs by Robert Workman, courtesy of Welsh National Opera

 

Welsh National Opera mounted what was probably a first by staging Donizetti's three best known Tudor history based operas on consecutive evenings. The operas were never conceived as a trilogy or of having any mutual relationship but performing them as such does give a unique chance to see how Donizetti's approach matured over the period of composition. The same production team were responsible for Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux but a different one was responsible for Maria Stuarda, which, although (or perhaps because) the best known, tended to receive the worst reviews.

Alan Jackson, the Society's treasurer, saw the trilogy in Oxford, October 16-18 and has provided the following commentary:-

Donizetti’s operas Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux were staged on consecutive evenings. Not surprisingly they shared some things in common, elements of the sets and chorus costumes. Musically there were three separate casts (only Alastair Miles appeared in two operas) but Daniele Rustioni conducted both Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux, leaving Maria Stuarda to Graeme Jenkins. Rustioni’s control over his operas was admirable, capturing both the scale and eloquence of Anna Bolena, and the taut drama of Roberto Devereux. Indeed, the latter was truly magnificent, one of my most exciting evenings in the theatre for some time. Alas, the Maria Stuarda was disappointing, most of the fast music being just hard-driven; fast doesn’t always mean dramatic.

Despite recovering from a cold, Serena Farnocchia was a moving Anna, clearly pacing herself with the mad scene in mind, and fulfilling the varied demands of this difficult role. Judith Howarth was less successful with Maria. Hampered by the production (see below) she wasn’t allowed to convey the full lyrical beauty of her music. Her big dramatic moment misfired; having spat out a splendidly acid “Figlia impura di Bolena” there simply wasn’t enough in reserve in the middle of the voice for “vil bastarda” which was submerged by the orchestra. Her coloratura is wonderfully fluent, though in this edition there isn’t much call for it. Her acuti are sweeter than many, but these interpolated high notes (high F in the first aria) sound out of place to me. As Elisabetta (in Devereux), Alexandra Deshorties was magnificent. True the top is strident at full voice, but everything was in keeping with the character, rage and jealousy powerfully expressed. Her downward scales in the finale to Act II were virtuosic in their clarity and the cumulative effect of the final scene made me think that Donizetti wrote nothing finer.

Of the seconde donne, Katharine Goeldner was fine as Giovanna, Adina Nitescu too shrewish as Elisabetta (in Maria Stuarda) and Leah-Marian Jones excellent as Sara. The three tenors were strongly cast. Though his voice is not very ingratiating, Robert McPherson coped manfully with the Rubini role of Percy. Bruce Sledge poured out a stream of golden tone as Roberto (in Maria Stuarda) – he was less affected by the conducting and production than his colleagues in that opera. Leonardo Capalbo sang the title role in Roberto Devereux extremely well, and threw himself (literally) into the demands made by his director.

Of the lower male voices, Alastair Miles unravelled the semiquavers of Enrico despite his Braveheart wig and David Kempster effectively brought out the jealousy of Nottingham. Smaller roles were adequately taken throughout. The chorus were too loud in the elegiac parts of Anna Bolena (though the very alive acoustic of the New Theatre’s balcony may have exaggerated this) but superb everywhere else.

The big drawback with Maria Stuarda was the production. Both Maria and Elisabetta came over more as petulant teenagers than royal figures, and if this was how Tudor queens behaved historically it wasn’t how Donizetti and his librettists saw them. Clambering awkwardly onto and into their boxes – a scenic idea that could have worked but here failed in execution – didn’t help and all the other directorial ideas, such as Maria and Anna sharing a cigarette near the start of Act II and the appearance of Maria’s executioner at the end fell very flat. Contrastingly, all the ideas in the other two operas added to the drama. The image of miscarriage and an empty cot at the start of Anna Bolena and the cot’s return in her delirium at the end were powerful markers. Likewise in Roberto Devereux, the spider web throne for Elisabetta and the company’s unison reaction to Roberto’s death were gripping. Above all, the interactions between the characters were convincing and detailed. Alessandro Talevi was the director for both Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux.

In short, the Anna Bolena is very fine, the Maria Stuarda is a disappointment, and the Roberto Devereux should not be missed – cancel any previous engagements and catch it somewhere on the WNO tour.

 

Russell Burdekin saw the trilogy in Southampton on November 27-29, 2013.

When WNO announced their plans to produce this trilogy on successive nights, I was amongst those who had doubts about the likely impact both artistically and commercially of such an enterprise. Happily on the artistic side, at least, the effort was well worth it with the three operas providing a varied and rewarding experience despite their obvious similarities. The first point that struck me strongly was the clear superiority dramatically of Maria Stuarda, with its much more focussed and integrated plot as against the other two that are more a series of incidents, however, dramatic and moving some of those incidents might be. 

As to performances, I found the Anna Bolena (with Linda Richardson as Anna) perhaps the least interesting of the three, even though Robert McPherson (as Percy) was the singer who impressed me most in the whole trilogy despite him not chancing any high notes in "Vivi tu".  For me, the first half of Maria Stuarda was the most rewarding of the three operas, with Camilla Roberts, who came in to replace an ill Adina Nitescu, giving a superb performance as Elizabeth. I was at a loss as to why the production had garnered such strong criticism but perhaps they had tinkered with some of the more unworkable parts. The director's view was that the two queens were mirror images and one can conceive that if roles were reversed they might well have acted out each other's roles.  However, the director pushed the idea too far so that the performance did fall away in the second half ending with a totally misconceived final scene in which Leicester killed himself, thus depriving Mary of an important aspect of her final aria as well as adding to the stage clutter.  And though having Cecil standing smirking and a crowded and chaotic place of execution might both have some historic validity, dramatically, all this fussy business hamstrung Judith Howarth's efforts to crown her earlier considerable achievements  with an appropriately moving and cathartic conclusion.  I can see why many people considered Roberto Devereux the best of the three productions with Alexandra Deshorties acting an outstanding and memorable Elizabeth but I found her shallow tone and strident top notes too grating to be enjoyable or moving, whereas Leah-Marian Jones, as Sara, gave much more rounded performance.

Madeleine Boyd's rather dark and subdued designs with the occasional splash of red gave a consistent, if rather dull and slightly passé, feel to the three productions, although she should be made to walk around for a month in the lumpy, unattractive skirts she foisted on the women's chorus. The other common factors to the three were the orchestra and chorus, both of which were outstanding under spirited conducting.

 

The Team

 

Anna Bolena

 

Anne Boleyn - Serena Farnocchia / Linda Richardson

Henry VIII - Alastair Miles

Jane Seymour - Katharine Goeldner

Lord Percy - Robert McPherson

Smeaton - Faith Sherman

Lord Rocheford - Daniel Grice

Lord Hervey - Robyn Lyn Evans

 

Conductor - Daniele Rustioni / Andrew Greenwood

Director - Alessandro Talevi

Designer - Madeleine Boyd

Lighting Designer - Matthew Haskins

Movement - Maxine Braham

 

Maria Stuarda

 

Queen Elizabeth - Adina Nitescu

Mary Stuart - Judith Howarth

Leicester - Bruce Sledge

Talbot - Alastair Miles

Cecil - Gary Griffiths

 

 

 

Conductor - Graeme Jenkins / Robin Newton

Director - Rudolf Frey

Designer - Madeleine Boyd

Lighting Designer - Matthew Haskins

 

 

Roberto  

Robert Devereux - Leonardo Capalbo

Queen Elizabeth - Alexandra Deshorties

Sarah the Duchess of Nottingham - Leah-Marian Jones

Duke of Nottingham - David Kempster

Walter Raleigh - William Robert Allenby

Cecil - Geraint Dodd

 

 

Devereux 

 

Conductor - Daniele Rustioni / Christian Capocaccia

Director - Alessandro Talevi

Designer - Madeleine Boyd

Lighting Designer - Matthew Haskins

Movement - Maxine Braham

 

 

Anna Bolena

 

© Robert Workman

Anne

 

 

© Robert Workman

Anne

 

 

© Robert Workman

Anne with the cradle which was used at the start and end of the opera.

 

 

Maria Stuarda

 

© Robert Workman

Elizabeth

 

 

© Robert Workman

Mary and Elizabeth

 

 

© Robert Workman

Mary Stuart

 

 

© Robert Workman

Mary and Talbot with the "box" set

 

 

© Robert Workman

Elizabeth and Mary illustrating the director's idea that they are mirror images of the other

 

 

Roberto Devereux

 

© Robert Workman

Elizabeth and Leicester

 

 

© Robert Workman

Elizabeth in her "spider" throne

 

 

© Robert Workman

Scene from Roberto Devereux