Opera Review: The Tudors - Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre

The Tudors 
WNO Roberto Devereux
Leonardo Capalbo (Robert) & David Kempster (Duke of Nottingham)
photo credit Robert Workman
Welsh National Opera
Wales Millennium Centre

Review by Sebastian Petit

Anna Bolena

On the rare occasions when companies have taken on a trilogy of Bel Canto warhorses the motivation has been the opportunity to show off a star singer in a series of contrasting roles. Bel canto stars on this level are as rare as the proverbial domestic fowl’s incisors even at international level. So, at the very least, one must applaud WNO’s chutzpah in tackling these three loosely linked operas.

The opening salvo of a three opera weekend is probably the most ferociously demanding of the three. Famous Anna Bolenas have included Maria Callas and Beverley Sills and the role has more recently attracted the attention of Gruberova and Netrebko. The part requires the singer to essay a vastly taxing range of singing and acting: I would place it second only to Norma in the demands it places. Serena Farnocchia was equal to most of the demands of the role but definitely dramatically happier when cursing her rival or errant husband. That said she delivered a mad scene which both moved and thrilled. The thread of sound on “Ah dolce guidami” was gorgeously realised.

Photo by Robert Workman
An apology was made for Katherine Goeldner before the performance but, aside for an occasional hardness in the upper register, there was little to indicate any indisposition. Her duet with Farnocchia was the highlight of the evening both musically and dramatically. Unfortunately both ladies were dressed in some of the most unflattering costumes it has been my displeasure to experience. Three quarter length Dior type skirts are splendid if one has a Hepburn type figure. Alas, very few opera singer (even these days) are that lucky. When the flared skirt is topped off by a leather breastplate one has to wonder whether any of the design team bothered to attend the fittings. Poor Farnocchia was kitted out in a perilously décolleté nymph outfit for the mad scene which provided entirely the wrong sense of danger during the climax of the opera.

The men made less impression than the women although some of the blame for that must be laid at Donizetti’s door. The role of Percy, written for Rubini, is dramatically confused and stratospherically demanding. Unfortunately Robert McPherson was up to neither aspect. His first aria was met with desultory applause and even “Vivi tu and the ensuing cabaletta was little better. The voice has a curiously buzzing edge to it and, disastrously for this repertoire, becomes less and less strong as it ascends the scale.

Alistair Miles was encouraged to play Enrico as a cross between Attila and Mephistopheles, which was entertaining, but there is more to find even in such an unsympathetic role. Miles’ rather soft-grained voice is not ideal for this part and the top especially needs more bite but his was certainly an arresting assumption. No doubt his Demon King curtain call was an apt response to the ludicrous sections of the audience who chose to boo the character rather than applaud the singer.

Daniel Rustioni led a very tightly focused orchestra and paced the evening excellently from an exciting overture through to the tragic conclusion.

The production was something of a mixed blessing mixing potent imagery (Anna’s imagined baby fashioned from her train was particularly effective) with some clumsy scenic movement. Did no one from the company point out that the female chorus sidestepping on the moving revolve was fatally reminiscent of the Les Misérables revolve march?! The dour set and black on black design seemed curiously ill suited to evocation of a period noted for its grandeur and relish of rich, colourful court wear. However Maxine Braham (Movement director) contrived some restrained chorus movement and interesting stage pictures (despite the unintentional Les Mis quote)

Singing 4 stars ✭✭✭✭
Production 3 stars ✭✭✭

Maria Stuarda

This was a much more mixed evening than Bolena combining as it did some excellent singing with a crassly inept production and some pretty hairy moments of poor coordination between the pit and stage. Set in the same unit set as Bolena and with many of the same unfortunate costumes (Dior skirts and leather breastplates for the women again) Rudolf Frey added a generous set of new infelicities to the mix. Worst of these was the portrayal of the Queens as two slatterns fighting over Leicester. Frey seemed hell-bent on removing all traces of dignity from both characters. There is some excuse for this in the case of the unsympathetically drawn Elizabetta but Maria Stuarda is one of Donizetti’s most dignified and pathos-laden characters. (A world away from the real Mary, but let that pass) Poor Judith Howarth, saddled with a council estate facelift hairstyle and an outfit that suggested a themed hen night in Glasgow, struggled vainly to bring any dignity to the part. In the final scene, clad in black, she briefly prevailed before ripping the outer garment off to reveal a bizarre red breastplate (complete with uncomfortably realistic breast moulding). As if that wasn’t bad enough, when all eyes should be concentrating on Maria, Frey decided that Leicester, overcome with grief, should shoot himself. This is the second production I have suffered in a fortnight where the tenor is shot erroneously in the finale. At least in Bieito’s “Fidelio” Florestan came back to life so he could sing his final lines - in Stuarda poor Bruce Sledge just lay there and the tenor line was omitted. Once again, one is left asking, “Why do conductors allow this sort of vandalism?”

Alastair Miles (Talbot), Judith Howarth (Mary Stuart),
Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Anna Kennedy) & Gary Griffiths (Cecil)
Photo by Robert Workman
Fortunately the singing was, on the whole, a good deal more distinguished than the production. Judith Howarth is not an obvious bel canto soprano but she sang tirelessly in the role even if some of the highest notes were edge of seat stuff. She even managed to smoke during the opening aria without mishap - Why she was asked to, I have no clue.

Adina Nitescu was a very strange choice for Elizabetta. Her career is almost exclusively based in late 19th and early 20th century roles. She certainly attacks the role with commendable vigour but the results are often more belto than bel canto. Her top notes could fell an ox at a hundred paces and her vocal production frequently reminded me of the great Gwyneth Jones. In this repertoire that isn’t necessarily a compliment. To her credit she acted the socks off the part but I doubt it was what Donizetti or Schiller had in mind.

Bruce Sledge was a huge improvement on the previous night’s tenor. He has good line and forthright voice production. He eschewed a few of the unwritten high notes but he was an absolute pleasure to listen to throughout the evening. His acting was a little generalised-tenor but the production must take at least some of the blame for that.

Oddly Alistair Miles as Talbot produced the sort of penetrative singing that he often failed to do in the larger role of Enrico. It was good to see him playing a more restrained, sympathetic role after the panto excesses of the previous night. He even managed to appear dignified while performing a strange washing ceremony with Maria prior to the execution scene.

Gary Griffiths, clearly taking his cue from Miles’ Enrico, played Cecil as a grimacing, lip smacking villain only lacking a white cat for the final touch. Cecil’s musical line underpins many of the important ensemble scenes and Griffiths provided excellent support.

Also worth noting was the lovely Rebecca Afonwy Jones making much of little in the role of Anna (Hannah). She was one of the few singers to look good in the bizarre female costumes.

Sad to report the orchestra under Graeme Jenkins had an extremely variable night. There were far too many disagreements between pit and stage with the trio Elizabetta/Leicester/Cecil trio coming close to complete musical breakdown. Not really good enough at this level.

Singers 3.5 stars ✭✭✭½
Production 1 star ✭

Roberto Devereux

WNO clearly believe in the time honoured tradition of saving the best for last: their performance of this rarely performed work was an absolutely riveting evening at the opera sung and acted with white heat intensity and framed by Alessandro Talevi’s excitingly inventive production. For this pitch black work ending in execution and a mad scene reminiscent of an opium user’s nightmare the all-black design theme made perfect sense. The coup de theatre of Elizabetta condemning Devereux atop a monstrous mechanical spider sounds ludicrous in print but in the theatre, manipulated in a truly scary manner by the female chorus, was a jaw dropping and daring theatrical image. Coupled with a score which looks directly forward to Verdi and beyond this was the type of theatrical experience that erases the memory of all the half-cooked or half cock evenings spent watching this most variable of art forms and sends one out of the theatre on a totally legal high.

For this production WNO fielded a company both musically exceptional and dramatically and visually entirely believable. In a uniformly excellent cast, the palm must nevertheless go to Alexandra Deshorties astonishing Elizabetta. The voice encompasses the huge range required for the role and, while her top notes are certainly lancingly strong, one never had the feeling, as one did with Nitescu’s Elizabetta, that one was being bludgeoned into submission. Add to that her enthralling acting, charting the progression from proud Queen to disintegrating and broken madwoman, it is hard to imagine anyone doing the role better.

Alexandra Deshorties (Elizabeth) & 
Leonardo Capalbo (Robert)
Credit: Robert Workman
I have seen Leah-Marian Jones in numerous supporting roles at the ROH but I am ashamed to admit that I would never have expected her to produce the absolutely thrilling performance she gave as Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham. It would be easy to make this role the vanilla contrast to Elizabetta but she made the character compelling, fiery and a fit rival to the Queen. She also sang the hell out the role and her duet with David Kempster’s wonderful Nottingham, which, more than any Donizetti I know, directly prefigures the great Verdi duets, was (along with Deshorties mad scene) the highlight of the evening. Kempster sang better than I have ever heard him before as well as convincingly showing the change from blindly loyal friend to furiously jealous husband. His performance bodes extremely well for his upcoming WNO Nabucco.

Leonardo Capalbo as Devereux is both handsome in person and voice and must be one of the few tenors I know who could get away with wearing tight leather trousers for their first entrance. He is also a compelling actor and made his final prison scene a really moving experience. A slight word of warning - he tired at the end of the role (unsurprisingly as the role is long and demanding and he gave unstintingly of himself throughout the evening). His voice is both dark and robust but still at a vulnerable stage: I would hate him to listen to siren voices telling him to delve too deeply into Verdi and Puccini too soon. The operatic scene is already far too littered with wrecked tenor voices.

After the less than distinguished pit contribution in Stuarda it was a relief to welcome back the dynamic Daniele Rustioni who was on coruscating form, even managing to make the overture, which variates at some length on “God save the Queen”, a truly exciting opening to the evening. From then on Rustioni never let the tension flag and drew superb playing from the WNO orchestra. I cannot wait to hear him conduct again.

5 stars all round ✭✭✭✭✭

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