Anne Boleyn has long been a fascination to authors, playwrights, composers and audiences alike. It is in conjunction with Donizetti’s two other Tudor operas, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux that WNO bring Anna Bolena to Oxford this season. The opera charts the last few days of Henry VIII’s second wife, from her arrest to the day of her execution. While there is no mention of it in the synopsis, this production would appear to open with the birth of Elizabeth (on a revolving stage), an incident which we then hear suspiciously little about.
Despite the company’s best efforts, it is difficult to maintain interest in an opera that consists essentially of one-dimensional characters standing around singing very similar tunes all about their feelings. The orchestra, directed enthusiastically but somewhat manically by Daniele Rustioni, attempt to make some sense of the slightly piecemeal overture and after that are relegated, in typical bel canto fashion, to providing similar-sounding accompaniments to the vocal fireworks. The singing, by and large, is fantastic, Katharine Goeldner’s Jane Seymour a well-cast foil to Serena Farnocchia’s Anna. Both are very much on top of anything Donizetti throws their way. In the trouser role of Mark Smeaton, Faith Sherman stands out with a wonderfully expressive and shining tone. She and Robert McPherson, in the role of Lord Percy, Anna’s supposed lover, valiantly attempt to act their parts convincingly despite the fact that their characters spend all their time being desperately in love in that operatic way that means they are unable to do anything that isn’t deeply stupid.
Alistair Miles is a superb Henry VIII, displaying great vocal control, power and expressivity. WNO’s chorus, as usual, sound great and do their best to make standing around in clumps and occasionally wearing bits of chainmail interesting. While the set design brings some handsome darkness to the proceedings, it does occasionally, along with the slightly pedestrian direction, detract from the potential spectacle of the chorus and ensemble scenes. In short, Anna Bolena is a noble effort from all concerned but one which suffers, in the end, from the opera being not one of the greats.