Lust, betrayal, beheadings. The words appeared prominently in the publicity for Opera Seria’s debut production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, bringing Horrible Histories fleetingly to mind, but they do sum up the plot of one of the composer’s greatest works rather well. Henry VIII is intent on freeing himself from Anne Boleyn, his second wife, and has Jane Seymour, her lady-in-waiting, lined up to be his third. His plan is to find ‘evidence’ that Anne is adulterous by inviting her first love, Lord Richard Percy, back to England from exile. Smeaton, a young court musician with a crush on the Queen (and access to her bedchamber) complicates the issue, as does Anne’s brother George – Lord Rochefort. All of the King’s victims are easily ensnared, and end up with the executioner.
Sung in Italian, it was a grand and admirably ambitious choice for a new and probably cash-strapped opera company formed only last year, which has set out to create and stage high-standard productions for Manchester, even though it almost apologises that it is not yet fully professional. The company is aiming for the skies: its initial plans for a first production involved Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Telephone and a room in a pub. In the well-equipped proscenium-arch theatre of the RNCM, with direct access to students, it was able to prove its worth on a much larger scale than this by tangling with a substantial work with three-dimensional principals which must have the finest singers.
Rochelle Hart is such a singer. Originally trained as a mezzo-soprano, which is hard to believe after experiencing her agile, fully-ranged soprano voice, she copes brilliantly with the dauntingly demanding title role, establishing a strong, regal presence from the start as she observes the sadness of the courtiers and mentions her troubles to Giovanna (Jane). By the time she is dreaming deliriously of happier times with her Enrico (Henry) in the second act as she wanders about in the Mad Scene, with Donizetti’s take on ‘Home Sweet Home’ emphasizing the poignancy, she has us completely conquered. Her tense interactions with Giovanna are powerful and moving, with ‘Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio’ providing us with some memorable exchanges in the second act.
Benedetta Orsi excels as Giovanna, and it is remarkable to note that this is her full-role debut, because in the complex relationship with the queen, she creates just the right stage alchemy, with sumptuous voice and particularly incisive delivery. Dmitry Yumashev’s Enrico bustles about with determination, a strangely soft-edged royal thug on a stage dominated by women, who is not given an aria by the composer. His intimate and attractive voice belies his villainy, and it is hard to believe in his lustful yearning for Giovanna.
Richard Hansen would certainly not be out of place on a much larger stage than this. As Lord Riccardo Percy, his lyrical quality, his fine diction and his vocal ability to convey the pain of his love ensure that he has great credibility, even though he appears to have been under-directed on the acting side. Marco Bellassi as Lord Rochefort and Adam Player as an obsequious Hervey both give strong performances. Heather Lupton, in very baggy green trousers as the boy lutenist Smeton (Smeaton), is a real find, with charm, acting ability and bucketfuls of vocal charisma. When she is in the queen’s bedchamber, revealing the fact that she dare not speak to her, smelling the perfumed sheets and clutching a pillow, she is simply brilliant, perhaps a little less convincing when staggering about after a spell in the torture chamber.
The female chorus comes into its own splendidly, but the tiny male chorus has few chances to do much of any note. Conductor Jonathan Lo, the presiding eminence behind the whole enterprise, is obviously well-acquainted with the bel canto style, always in control and undoubtedly destined for great things.
It is hard to know how much costing influenced the set, which is minimal, with folding wooden screens, a few sticks of furniture and a cloudscape projected on to the cyclorama, or the costumes, which are general-purpose Tudor and which remain more or less unchanged throughout. Plenty of tricks were missed when it comes to the acting, which is sometimes too formulaic, with repetitive gestures and mimed chorus interactions, and often too small-scale and undemonstrative for a work like this. It did not match the magnificent singing. All the same, this was a tremendous achievement which shows that Opera Seria is set to go from strength to strength.