10 September 2013
Heads will roll. Thus the gory, blood-gashed publicity for Donizetti's trilogy of Tudor operas with which Welsh National Opera starts it new season. And you would think that those three words applied to those in the auditorium, so utterly silent, still and transfixed was the audience on the opening night of Anna Bolena.
If it were only for the psychological penetration, emotional range and sheer stamina of the young Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia in the title role, this would be a gripping evening. But there is not a weak link in the cast. And Alessandro Talevi's new production, in its simplicity and powerful physicality, releases the full force of the work's revelation of the wiles and weaknesses of the human heart.
Madeleine Boyd's black-on-black design follows only the contours of period costume, revealing a passing glimpse of silky blue or carmine ruff and, finally, as Bolena walks to her execution, roll upon roll of scarlet ruche.
The set's black box, lit only by the sickly lunar white of Matthew Haskins's artful lighting, is the darkness of Henry's VIII's court, stifling with spying, inky with intrigue.
Donizetti makes the courtiers a powerful presence: their volatile sympathy, slander and moralising are physically played out in the gentle choreography of Maxine Braham's movement and in Talevi's cunning placing and spacing. His coups are thrilling: the use of a central revolve for the childbirth flashback that opens this production and its return, at the end, with empty cot to be crouched in by the deranged Anna. And the appearance earlier of a headless mannequin as love object of the poor court musician Smeaton, movingly sung by Faith Sherman. The motor behind it all, of course, is Donizetti's extraordinary score. This was his 35th opera no less, and his mastery of harmonic manipulation, melodic muscle and dramatic structure is revealed in Daniele Rustioni's exciting and committed conducting of the excellent WNO orchestra and chorus.
Alastair Miles's Enrico is a tour de force of gritty, granite bass characterisation, striated with the cruelty of weakness.
Robert McPherson as the lovelorn Percy, returning from exile only to be sucked into the King's intrigues, sings with a curiously nasal yet effective high tenor, sometimes looking surprised at how unfailingly he hits the stratosphere.
And Katherine Goeldner's musky and muscular mezzo packs a punch as Anna's tormented rival, Giovanna Seymour. Daniel Grice's Lord Rochefort and Robyn Lyn Evans's Lord Hervey deserve more than a mere mention.
Further performances Sept 14, 27 and Oct 4; next at Swansea Grand Theatre Oct 8 and 12, then on tour.