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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848)
Anna Bolena (1830)
Beverly Sills (soprano) – Anna Bolena; Paul Plishka (bass) – Enrico VIII; Shirley Verrett (mezzo) – Giovanna Seymour; Robert Lloyd (bass) – Lord Rochefort; Stuart Burrows (tenor) – Lord Percy; Patricia Kern (mezzo) – Smeton; Robert Tear (tenor) – Hervey; John Alldis Choir; London Symphony Orchestra/Julius Rudel
rec. London, August 1972. ADD
Libretto available at
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93924 [3 CDs: 64:51 + 58:02 + 71:26]
Experience Classicsonline

Two years ago Decca reissued their Anna Bolena from 1987, conducted by Richard Bonynge. It had his wife Joan Sutherland in the title role (see review). I had a lot of positive things to say about the performance but the real weakness – and a serious one at that – was Ms Sutherland’s assumption of Anne Boleyn. She recorded the role late in her career when she was past sixty and the voice had deteriorated. The beat, that had started to creep in as early as the mid-1970s, had developed into something close to a wobble. She had to work hard to produce a legato line and the reading felt bland. All of this was a sad state of affairs since so much else was first class. At the time I hadn’t heard the Sills recording although I was very familiar with her capacity and had admired her since the early 1970s in other roles. Instinctively I felt that with her in the title role the Decca set would have been unbeatable. As things stood I recommended readers to get the Decca anyway but keep Maria Callas’s recording of the mad scene available for a truer reading of the role. There is a live recording of Anna Bolena with Callas but that studio recording, 20 minutes long, will never be redundant, however many other versions there will be.

With the arrival of the Brilliant Classics’ budget price issue of the Rudel/Sills recording the situation changes radically. The sound may not be quite in the Decca class but is fully worthy of the performance. The LSO play with accustomed expertise. The John Alldis Choir, who have graced so many opera sets, are in excellent form – so important in this opera, where the chorus is almost as essential as the soloists. Julius Rudel’s conducting is in no way second best to Bonynge’s. Timings show that he is often marginally slower than Bonynge but there is no sense of dragging and the rhythmic spring adds life to the reading. Just lend an ear to the powerful opening sinfonia.

Of the soloists Paul Plishka as Enrico VIII is a towering presence, dramatically convincing. He can’t quite compete with Bonynge’s Samuel Ramey, who is an even more formidable king with a classier voice. His reading lays claim to be his best recording. On the other hand Robert Lloyd’s Lord Rochefort is far preferable to Bonynge’s Giorgio Surian, good though he is at infusing life into his character. Ernesto Gavazzi is an excellent Hervey for Bonynge but Robert Tear is in the same class. Lord Percy is a role that requires a bel canto tenor with some sap in the forte. I am full of admiration for Bonynge’s Jerry Hadley who has the necessary honeyed tone as well as the ringing top notes. In his last act cabaletta he presses his voice beyond its natural limits, which Stuart Burrows avoids. His is also an agreeable voice, pliant and well equalized. He is on a par with Hadley in most respects, though his approach is somewhat cooler. In the reprise of the just mentioned cabaletta, Nel veder la tua costanza, he resorts to some falsetto, but it is tastefully done and it is quite possible that this was still common practice in 1830.

Patricia Kern is an excellent Smeton and her song with harp in the first scene is executed with elegance and fine tone as is the recitative and aria in scene 3. Bernadette Manca di Nissa for Bonynge is just as good.

I was deeply impressed by Susanne Mentzer’s Giovanna on the Bonynge set and wrote that she ‘almost steals the whole show’. That is also true of Rudel’s Shirley Verrett. From 1957 and well into the 1990s she was one of the world’s leading mezzo-sopranos – and she also ventured into the soprano Fach. In 1972 she was at the height of her powers. She is at her most dramatically expressive in Per questa fiamma (CD 3 tr. 6) and Ah! pensate che rivolti (CD 3 tr. 8) offers glorious singing of a kind that is very hard to surpass. In the opera house that must have been a showstopper.

And so to the crucial title role. Does Beverly Sills live up to the expectations? Indeed she does. From her first entrance early in act I it’s clear that here is an artist with a full grip on the proceedings. Her voice is crystal clear and has considerable warmth – which sometimes has been missing from her armoury. Her incisiveness with words comes as no surprise, her technical accomplishment likewise. There is often a disarming simplicity and youthfulness in her singing. Listen to Non v’ha sguardo (CD 1 tr. 7). The scenes with Percy and Enrico are natural highlights and the long final mad scene (CD 3 tr. 13-17) is both deeply moving and – in the fearless reading of the concluding cabaletta – technically spectacular.

A libretto is available as indicated in the header but it is in Italian without translations.

Apart from the less than attractive reading of the title role the Decca set is still an impressive achievement but with a similarly accomplished supporting cast and two highly charged queens the Rudel set becomes first choice.

Göran Forsling





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