There is something rather unnerving about watching someone playing Anne Boleyn on stage in full regalia. It is made especially so if you’re aware that the real Queen’s body and head (detached) lay only yards away in the chapel of the Tower of London. But the apt blend of music and location just added to the atmosphere in this welcome revival of a seldom performed opera, part of the Tower’s first Music Festival.
The sinfonia to Anna Bolena is a wonderful piece of music, encapsulating every emotion and theme of Donizetti’s opera: love, adultery, wrath, murder, incest and betrayal. And this new production made for a splendid and innovative evening – the simple yet effective set subtly juxtaposed with the splendour and decadence of the Tudor costumes; the stage shadowed by the impressive mass of the Bloody Tower.
It may not have been a perfect evening; the mono-sound of the speakers was poor, ranting drunks and overhead planes were a distraction, but the cast and orchestra were magnificent, putting on a breathtaking and memorable show.
Hannah Francis was the artistic driving force behind this production and her outstanding vibrato was the star of the show. Anna Bolena is a complex character and Francis portrayed her with the necessary intricacy, overwhelming the audience with her strength and her incredibly regal presence on stage as she evolved from the scorned lover of Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio suo braccio punitor, to the troubled Queen of Se mai di regio soglio ti seduce lo splendore, ti rammenta il mio cordoglio, non lasciarti lusingar and finally the condemned woman of Ah, segnata e la mia sorte. Francis is an amazing artist who has the power to genuinely startle with the conviction behind her voice and the ability to evoke real sympathy through her portrayal of Anna’s final tragic moments.
She was supported by an equally accomplished cast with Charles Johnston, as the baritone King Enrico, managing to avoid becoming the usual pantomime villain of opera by tempering his cruel and malevolent treatment of Anna with the tenderness he shows towards Giovanna Seymour. His Pia che il tuo Re son io: l’amante io son was a triumph – a striking and powerful interpretation of Donizetti’s work.
The role of Giovanna Seymour was taken by Jennifer Johnston whose performance was also impressive. This character could have easily been portrayed as a weak woman easily manipulated by King Enrico, but Johnston managed to convey a sense of her moral strength and independence. Along with those performed by Francis, her role called for further beautiful arias, which were expertly and artistically executed.
This was an open air event and as a result it had certain, excusable, technical imperfections, but ultimately it proved, as have the recent concerts at Hampton Court and the operas at Holland Park, that good performances will win out whatever the location. Anna Bolena at the Tower of London is no exception and as the angelic voice of Hannah Francis sang out Ah! Pieta, the audience could not help but be aware of Anne herself, as they sat within the tower that made her Queen and took her life.