With Hilary Mantel fans desperately waiting on the conclusion to her Wolf Hall trilogy, a bit of Tudor escapism by way of Donizetti seems to be the obvious choice to whet the appetite. No composer does Tudor escapism quite as well as Donizetti with his trilogy of Anna Bolena, Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda. It was the first of these that gave the composer his first big hit and kick-started his fame; a good place for the Longborough Festival, best known for its impeccable Wagner pedigree, to continue its fledging relationship with the composer which will further evolve in 2020 with L'elisir d'amour.

Linda Richardson (Anna Bolena) © Matthew Williams Ellis
Linda Richardson (Anna Bolena)
© Matthew Williams Ellis

Longborough’s budget remains fairly tight and Jenny Miller’s production is consequently not the most glamorous of regal operas. The setting is updated: we have the bizarre spectacle of men in black tie drawing daggers to duel, and the central idea of the production involves the chorus periodically donning or removing masks. There’s certainly something in that – the concealment of emotions in a tyrannical court, the freedom of anonymity to engage freely in condemnation and violence, harking back to the old masked choruses of the Greeks – but it became marginally irritating as the production unfolded. Nate Gibson’s set is sparsely furnished, a large throne dominating proceedings is hardly an original concept, but effectively demonstrates the overwhelming presence of Henry VIII even when absent. The backdrop is a gilded twisting screen of metal, twisting and curling just as much as the courtiers bend in whichever direction is most likely to curry royal favour.

Linda Richardson (Anna Bolena) and Lukas Jakobski (Enrico) © Matthew Williams Ellis
Linda Richardson (Anna Bolena) and Lukas Jakobski (Enrico)
© Matthew Williams Ellis

It’s not a pleasant world that Miller has evoked, and just as the throne dominates the stage, so too did bass Lukas Jakobski loom over the cast as Enrico (Henry VIII). Physically, Jakobski is an extremely imposing figure, towering over everyone else (indeed, he must have been several feet taller than his petite Jane) and deploying his muscular physique to threatening effect. His Enrico was no elegant, appealing seducer, but a brutish tyrant for whom ‘might is right’. Perhaps he descended into parody once or twice – there was a look of almost pantomime villainy at the end of the first act – but it was a convincing performance on the whole, and his look of discomfort, physically almost shrivelling as his regal perfection was torn down by Anne was deftly portrayed. Vocally Jakobski was equally commanding, insidiously mellow at times and hectoring to the point of a bellow at others. It made for a gripping performance.

The eponymous heroine is an awkward role and Linda Richardson brought Anna to life in a vivid, multi-faceted form. The demands at the top of the voice are not easy, but Richardson threw herself into it, at her best in seething fury at the end of Act 1 and in an eerily detached mad scene in Act 2. Richardson’s soprano is beautifully coloured and one felt a real sense of singing from the text; diction was clear and pointed, phrases shaped with care. Her successor, on the other hand, was sung by the lighter, smaller instrument of Caryl Hughes, who gave us a determined, yet also divided Jane, pulled by a blind love for a demonstrably nasty man but also by loyalty to her queen.

Caryl Hughes (Giovanna) and Lukas Jakobski (Enrico) © Matthew Williams Ellis
Caryl Hughes (Giovanna) and Lukas Jakobski (Enrico)
© Matthew Williams Ellis

Jung Soo Yun’s tenor was somewhat nasal, but certainly had the flexibility and reach in the higher register, particularly in the second act, to make an effect as Percy. He seemed to have genuine chemistry with Richardson and their duet was a high point of the evening. Carolyn Dobbin was an earnest, passionate Smeaton and Matthew Buswell a moving, thoughtful Rochefort.

There was colour from the pit, the orchestra under Jeremy Silver giving a dynamic performance where care was clearly taken to ensure unity with the singers, but on first night, it wasn’t note perfect and there were moments when slightly brisker tempi would have given the piece an extra edge. On the whole though, a commendable production and one any lover of Donizetti, or indeed the Tudors, would enjoy.

***11