Anna Bolena, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – review

By coincidence two British opera companies are devoting their autumn programmes to a single composer. Opera North is focusing on Britten, whose stage works have become an intimate part of its repertory in recent years, while Welsh National Opera has alighted on Donizetti’s “Tudor trilogy” – Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux.

You can almost hear the artistic directors of the two companies licking their lips at such a dramaturgically consistent feast, but pity the poor audiences in regional centres where opera-going is packed into a single week during the autumn tour. One Donizetti opera per season is plenty for most people, but three at one go? And all designed by the same person, with two directed by the same conductor and producer? It could be a recipe for indigestion – or boredom.

Anna Bolena, which opened WNO’s 2013-14 season at the weekend, sets a respectable standard. It is more than decently sung, an achievement today for any company tackling bel canto opera. In Daniele Rustioni it has a conductor who shapes the music artlessly while simultaneously making the most of its tensions and dramatic contrasts. The production, by the director-designer team of Alessandro Talevi and Madeleine Boyd, seems unadventurous, not to say bland. The stage is decked out in black. The period-inspired costumes look as if they have been borrowed from an exhibition of opera-designer couture. The blocking has been carefully choreographed, but the characters behave like marionettes – at least until the finale, when the heroine suddenly starts to express herself. This is what you expect of an Italian or American company, not an ensemble of WNO’s audacious history. It’s time Talevi worked with other designers.

Serena Farnocchia, clad for most of the evening in an unflattering breastplate-style bodice, has all the notes for the title role. Her bright soprano may lack distinguishing beauties, but it has no discernible flaws and her technique is rock solid, allowing her to breeze through the finale with confidence and clarity – if not charisma. Katharine Goeldner makes a spirited Seymour, Robert McPherson a trumpet-toned Percy, while Alastair Miles turns in one of his best performances as a thuggish Enrico.

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