The Welsh National Opera’s new production of Anna Bolena was performed at the Swansea Grand Theatre on the 9th of October.

An elaborate overture immediately sets the scene for one of English history’s most recognisable stories, as The Welsh National Opera reignite in their new season the dramatic vocal melodies of Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn). This was an evening of exceptional performances, giving life and soul to the immortalised characters of the Tudor dynasty that could not have been anticipated.

This is a testament to Alessandro Talevi’s revival of the 1830 production, for the sheer emotional range and stamina prepare the audience for a truly gripping evening providing a newly appreciated sympathy for Henry VIII’s second Queen.

Heading the production in the titular role, Italian native Serena Farnocchia quite rightly drove the show. Playing Bolena with all the romantic power her iconic figure has come to represent, Farnocchia delivered a dazzling performance with effortlessly dizzying high notes that truly did her previous theatrical credits justice.

Submerged under the oppressive darkness of Madeleine Boyd’s sparingly lit, black on black staging, the atmosphere was truly stifling amid the tensions of spying and deceit within Enrico’s (Henry VIII’s) court. It certainly made an intriguing theatrical device, particularly when paired with similar costume choices – which only made Bolena’s march to her execution in roll upon roll of scarlet ruche all the more poignant. Her supposed derangement, and the false accusations of multiple affairs that lead to her death, stain the production in her blood, while nonetheless making way for the new Queen Seymour to replace Anna as the object of Enrico’s affections.

With the adoption of a Donizetti chorus, the courtiers added a full bodied sound, perfectly accompanying their fellow singers; all played out in the subtle choreography of Maxine Brahm’s movement and direction. Talevi also made extensive use of a central revolve thus providing the perfect means to create a dynamic, angular set. In fact, such detail adheres closely to the opening scene’s metaphorical charge in the composite sets of childbirth, punctuated by Katharine Goeldner’s strong mezzo rival to Anne, Giovanna (Jane) Seymour. The dramatic irony of betrayal among friends drives the piece’s revelation of universal weaknesses in the human heart.

However, praise must be given for the supporting cast’s performances, specifically Alastair Miles’ portrayal of Enrico (Henry VIII). Despite his odd appearance, (looking more like Fagin than the ruthless monarch), he nevertheless gave a gritty performance, highlighting the King’s tyrannous escapades in outing and punishing his wife by the cruellest means. Similarly, Robert McPherson’s debut with the WNO as the lovelorn Lord Percy, who, on returning from exile, wishes to run away with Anna. McPherson’s performance is delivered with a sentimental sincerity that captivates the audience, not only because his vocal abilities reach great heights, but also because of the emotional investment in his character, one that makes it all more difficult to watch Anna Bolena meet her untimely demise.

Anna Bolena is now continuing its UK tour.

By Niamh Hughes