Review: Anna Bolena, Welsh National Opera

Linda Richardson stars in WNO’s touring production at Bristol Hippodrome

Anna Bolena WNO‘You can give me death but not infamy’ Donizetti’s doomed heroine sings in the second half of this opera. Wishful thinking – Henry VIII not only disposed of his second wife, he also wove such a thick web of slander and half-truths around her that, even today, historians debate what really happened, and authors dine out on her story.

So Donizetti’s interpretation of Henry VIII’s doomed second marriage is something of an oddity. Boleyn herself is fragile, forgiving and guilt-ridden – a far-cry from the sinuous, scheming Boleyn in Hilary Mantel’s recent novels.

Soprano Linda Richardson in the title role of this Welsh National Opera production, brings out the character's softness and tugs at our hearts – especially in her scenes with tenor Robert McPherson as Lord Percy who, she realises too late, might have been the smarter bet as a husband.

As the innocent caught up in events he doesn't fully understand, Mark Smeaton is sympathetically played by mezzo-soprano Faith Sherman - though sadly his unfortunate story is slightly skimmed over in this production. Bass Alastair Miles as King Henry has the voice, and his stage presence is only undermined by a hideous costume, including what seems to be a piece of chainmail for his crotch…

Anna BolenaAlessandro Talevi’s production and Madeleine Boyd’s design have been rather mauled elsewhere in the press, and some of it does seem counter-intuitive. 

There's a biker-feel to all the black costumes, and the stage is sparsely furnished without much sense of the claustrophobia of the Tudor court. Animal skulls high on the wall give the opening scene a macabre aspect, but they soon disappear, and with them the sense of danger which could give the opera an edge.

But there were moments that worked. The scenes in the tower – particularly between Robert Percy and Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort (played by Stephen Wells in the production I saw) – have the chill of desperation. And the closing moments of the opera are suitably melodramatic.

But Jane Seymour (sung excellently by mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner) had an excruciating scene near the beginning of the opera in which Henry peels back layers of her skirts as she lies immobile. And although dressing all the characters in black may have made for a good spectacle, the stage could have done with some contrast.

But where there was uncertainty on stage, it was a different story in the pit. Conductor Daniele Rustioni laid his cards on the table with a blistering performance of the opera’s overture and, unbelievably, the energy rarely dipped throughout the evening. A bravura performance from both the Welsh National Opera orchestra and its chorus.

Welsh National Opera's season of Tudor operas and Puccini's Tosca is currently touring the UK. For more information visit the WNO website. Photos: Robert Workman