These operas are bound up in history but not bound
by history. Thus this Italian excursion into the English Tudors uses
history as a vehicle for music and adapts it to provide a better plot.
The best example of which is that Elizabeth I never met Mary Stuart
at Fotheringay but she does in Donizetti's operatic imagination .. and
to great dramatic effect.
The operas are usually those involving Elizabeth I
whereas here Anna Bolena replaces the conventional first in the series,
Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth. She, of course, was Elizabeth
I’s mother (a fact not mentioned or relevant to the opera). But Anne
Boleyn was a Queen in her own right: so the box title stands anyway.
It is a happy operatic substitution. After ten years
of modestly successful operatic productions Anna Bolena was Donizetti’s
first great success. He was now on his way to become a bel canto
exponent of original music with some important musical development
in his attempts to blur the aria / recitative structural division.
Enough of general history. Let us turn to the operas
themselves. Anna Bolena, was his 31st opera and was
written during a month’s visit to Giuditta Pasta’s house. There is a
strong suspicion of a significant input by Pasta for her role in the
premiere. Felice Romani provided a taut concise libretto. Donizetti
responded with mellifluous economic music, which he aimed "to serve
the situation and give the artists scope to shine."
That gift horse is not ignored. To support them we
have a Symphony Orchestra (not an opera house orchestra) in fine form.
With sound in depth they make a powerful contribution, never threaten
to overwhelm and deliver some emotive delicate solo instrumental introductions.
These artists have strong voices. Beverly Sills leads
the way with excellent diction. Very occasionally forte threatens tonal
quality; but her delivery of the two final arias displays a range of
hit and held notes and runs with tonal variation second to none. She
even manages to foreshadow the descent into partial delirium with notes
of piercing intensity at earlier stress points of the role, for example,
during S’ei t’abbore, io t’amo ancora.
The aria-less Henry VIII of Paul Plishka combines
superbly with the gentler moments of Sills and the powerhouse of Shirley
Verrett’s Seymour. Another note hitting soprano who can produce some
splendid tones. I thought Stuart Burrows was excellently cast as Percy.
A brilliantly clear and tonally varied voice. Patricia Kern’s Smeton
was the hesitant page with real vocal acting.
Happily the soloists combine to provide some outstanding
moments. The quintet towards the end of Act I is urgently compelling.
Before moving on, a brief word of comparison cannot
be avoided. Sutherland’s Anna Bolena from Decca (421 096) is
pure Sutherland. An unmistakable voice. Superlatives abound. But if
you are not one of her ardent fans here is a real alternative with a
cast and orchestra to rival Decca.
We move on from Elizabeth’s mother to her regal rival
in Maria Stuarda, Donizetti’s 46th opera. With text
by the little known lawyer Giuseppe Bardari, serious problems with censors
(not surprising really: the execution of a Catholic Queen would not
be popular with authorities in a catholic country) and a good physical
scrap between the two lead sopranos in rehearsal, adds a background
frisson. Banned, revived, refined in text and music, but it survived
– thank goodness. And here is a performance to echo that.
Again we have a Symphony Orchestra. The overture is
in stately fulsome sound. After one or two curious phrasings in the
overture the pace and tempi are instantly tightened for the rest of
We have three soloists from our previous opera: Sills,
Burrows and Kern. And if you thought Sills and Burrows were good in
the last performance then listen to them here.
The title role is sung by Sills. Eileen Farrell sings
the role of Elizabeth. She starts with some quite excellent vocal contrasts
over the whole of her vocal range, followed swiftly by some restrained
but fine coloratura. In the first Act she combines superbly with Burrows
(Leicester) and Louis Quilico (Talbot). Burrows provides some superb
sounds at many points but particularly Quest’ immago with emotional
falling notes sung piano: and later when he reluctantly describes
the beauty of Mary to Elizabeth. He contrasts with the darker voiced
Quilico in their totally enjoyable Act I duet.
Sills does not appear until Act II but when she does
her first aria is delivered with startling clarity and much colour.
Indeed in this performance there seems to be a more refined Sills on
stage. There are higher notes delivered piano at which she is
so good and with excellent vocal acting.
Christian du Plessis is the unforgiving and trenchant
Cecil persuading Elizabeth of the wisdom of the death of Mary. It is
not the biggest role but it is sung with consummate skill. Kern’s role
as Mary’s nurse (maid) is small indeed but, as with the chorus, it is
important that they contribute to the whole, which they do well
The helpful and interesting accompanying booklets give
full libretto and English translation, synopsis and history. Each has
"An Appreciation and History" of Westminster together with
some background notes on the only soloist to appear in all three recordings:
Beverly Sills. For this opera in addition we have a translator’s note
about Bardari’s use of names and the translation liberties taken: thoroughly
helpful and to be applauded.
Onto the final opera and Donizetti’s 57th,
Roberto Devereux. This was written at a low point in his life,
after the death of his parents, the arrival of a stillborn child and
then the death of his wife. The booklet reminds us that his librettist
Cammarano helped himself to work by Felice Romani. All that no doubt
explains the hugely emotional content.
We have a change of Choir: from the John Alldis Choir
of the previous two to the Ambrosian Opera Chorus. More importantly,
here we have the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Charles
Mackerras. Without me saying more you can almost guarantee that here
will be a full resonant sound delivered with sharp precision and timing
and not missing any orchestral nuance.
I wish I could say the same for the soloists. I can
for Sills but for much of the time (not all) they seem to think that
they are trying to fill an opera piazza with sound rather than a microphone.
Forte rules and it is not OK. Thus, for example, when Nottingham,
sung by the beautifully toned Peter Glossop, reaches Scellerato!…he
has no more left for his blind rage. It is not until the last Act that
they permit themselves some serious tonal contrast and expression.
This is particularly true of Beverly Wolff’s Sara who
in the last Act uses her powerful voice to great tonal effect. Robert
Ilosfalvy sings the title role. He comes to tonal variation and piano
early in his duet with Sara. Although he does not maintain that his
final Act assurance of Sara’s chastity is delivered with dignified anguish.
It is Sills who shows vocal versatility throughout. Although she does
not ignore power she recognises that piano can be a formidable
tool of contrast.
This set is a serious addition to any opera lover’s
collection. The reproduction on CD is quite excellent and whilst you
can occasionally detect hiss that is an irrelevance in the overall context.