Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, a thoroughly romanticised account of Anne Boleyn’s disastrous destiny, is something difficult to sell in terms of credibility. Whatever knowledge we can have of history, it is quite likely that Jane Seymour did not weep to Anne in her remorse and relate how she had been irresistibly seduced by Henry. Whilst most operas struggle to invite us to have credence in a plot, Anna Bolena by its very context is subjected to a higher challenge.
Marco Armiliato’s concentrated handling of the orchestra serves this long and complex work very well although he allows the music be consigned to both climactic Romantic flurries and a regal alla marcia pace that verges on being close to certain sections of The Barber of Seville. Every tiny melody on flute exudes the lyrical appeal that constitutes an opera rampant with bel canto chains of decoration.
Nevertheless it isn’t easy to eradicate awareness of the plot’s stubborn refusal to cooperate with any notion of historical reality. The whole performance fluctuates, allowing us at intervals to be convinced by characters’ soliloquies – and then at other times deflecting the story’s credibility. Sondra Radvanovsky is Anna, and her well-known timbre is distinct in having idiosyncratic perils and distinguished assets. There is a very blatant vibrato on the high notes audible in passages where it does not serve the sentiment or plot. Radvanovsky’s execution on the whole has the potential to become a drama in itself. In certain moments filled with desperate imploring, her slow diminuendos are effective, particularly when she begs Henry to not condemn her (‘Non condonnarmi, o Re’), and in the sudden crescendo on the final horror-stricken revelation of ‘Ad Anna – Giudici.’
Singing the role of Anna’s rival is mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton. Barton not only applies a rhythmic mastery to her vocally arduous passages, she also intertwines them with a pathos this production does not often yield. Her dark, cavernous gravity across the low notes serves her well as Jane expresses the full horror of her actions. While she struggles in some rushed cadenzas, at the same time she replenishes her short contralto passages, such as ‘la mia sorta è fissa’, with both black guilt and resignation to destiny.
Ildar Abdrazakov’s Henry VIII is a domineering character with the essential large bass notes to match the resolution in his personality. His execution on the other hand is mostly monochrome. There isn’t much discrepancy between the Henry who attempts repeatedly to coax his lover Jane into believing in their love and one who, burning in his rage, sends Anna to the gallows. As he sings to Jane, ‘Non avrà Seymour rivale’, there is neither false nor true charm being churned to seduce her. Stephen Costello’s Percy reveals an heroic timbre although more variation in tone and rubato would serve him well. Tamara Mumford impresses in the secondary role of young Smeaton, smitten with Anna. Mumford is vocally clean throughout the love song, ‘Deh, non voler constringere,’ full of youthful passion.
David McVicar’s unusually empty production serves to debunk the extent of belief we could have in this episode. While the costumes adhere to the Tudor style, mostly it is unclear where the action happens. A large black wall vaguely resembles the wall of a court. A navy curtain covers the top half of the stage, limiting the space of the set. One could imagine that the curtain represents the darkness; yet in that case it is difficult to understand why the lighting is so bright that it sometimes resembles a white office ceiling.
Overall the production falls slightly short of convincing us of its logic. However, despite all the inevitable problems in this strenuous and rarely performed work, it manages to prompt us to believe that this not-so-beloved opera is a certain something that we want to hear – and that per se is doubtlessly some mark of its accomplishment.