With Anna Bolena, Donizetti, at 33 years of age, reached his artistic maturity, moving on from Rossini’s influence to produce his first masterpiece. Rossini can still be heard in some details, but they are inserted in a much more dramatic context. Rossini’s main heritage is represented by the structure of the opera, which consists of a few complex, vast musical numbers. The duets, trios, concertati and chorus interventions fuse together in a musical continuum where the dramatic tension mounts. Conductor Riccardo Frizza presented a complete version of the score: three-and-a-half hours of music, avoiding the “traditional” heavy cuts that interrupt the crescendo of tension and can make the opera feel disconnected and, paradoxically, long. With the exception of Percy’s traditional cavatina, Donizetti never drags on with his showpieces: every note serves the theatrical drama.

Maria Agresta (Anna Bolena) © Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma
Maria Agresta (Anna Bolena)
© Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma

The Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma was arranged in an unusual way, with the concertmaster in front of the conductor, the violin section to his right(!), flutes and other woodwinds to his left, cellos and double basses behind them. Their performance was brilliant. Frizza explored every detail of the score: ravishing in the tender moments, energetic and boisterous when needed, with a reading more attentive to Classical heritage than to budding Romanticism. The chorus, well prepared by Roberto Gabbiani, was always on point in their numerous interventions.

Director Andrea de Rosa interpreted the opera as a great prison where all the characters are jailed behind giant bars and grates on a dark, empty stage. For the second half of Act 1, Anna was in a four-poster bed surrounded by bars, which became a cage when Enrico accuses her in the wonderful finale. During Act 2, the stage was a construction of three floors, as a sort of “lift” to the gallows. Anna was imprisoned on the second floor, Percy and Rochefort were on the third. The idea, albeit not original, was effective thanks to the wonderful singers, who enlivened the drama. Except for a brilliant duet between Enrico (Henry VIII) and Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, Act 1 was more subdued, the singers possibly sparing themselves for Act 2, where they cranked up the emotional intensity for a passionate performance.

<i>Anna Bolena</i> © Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma
Anna Bolena
© Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma

Maria Agresta made her debut as Anna, a role which brings her into the lirico-drammatico arena after her past pure lyrical roles (Desdemona, Mimì). Singing one of the most demanding bel canto roles, she definitely passed the test, despite sounding just a bit tired at the end of a very long afternoon. She approached the coloratura and the high notes with confidence, her beautiful, mellow voice particularly suited to the mournful parts. The finale of the opera was heartbreaking. Her “Al dolce guidami”, sung with one single, angelic thread of voice while lying of the floor of her cell, brought the audience to tears. The most surprising feature was the intense, passionate voice she found to express Anna’s outrage and desperation, after the accusation. During the confrontation with her rival Giovanna in Act 2, Agresta found depth and an unexpected chest quality in her voice, which she maintained for most of the last act, for example when confronting her husband. The duet of the two female protagonists was spectacular, the absolute highlight of the evening, also thanks to Carmela Remigio, who made her debut as Giovanna.

Carmela Remigio (Giovanna) and Alex Esposito (Enrico) © Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma
Carmela Remigio (Giovanna) and Alex Esposito (Enrico)
© Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma

For most of the 20th century, mezzos had hijacked the role of Giovanna; but now, finally, we have a soprano, just as Donizetti intended! Remigio put her round, multi-faceted voice at the service of Enrico’s future third wife, with great results. A good actress, she managed to convey all the sides of her character's personality: lust for power, guilt, sincere friendship with Anna. She displayed good chemistry with Alex Esposito’s Enrico. Esposito is a master of bel canto technique; this role fits perfectly in his repertoire, and he didn’t disappoint. His voice was warm and beautiful, and he depicted a ruthless villain, exposing his weakness and his fickleness, without resorting to histrionic excesses.

René Barbera was Percy, a devilishly hard role with extremely high notes and fast coloratura. Barbera tackled it with confidence, his beautiful voice only occasionally sounding a bit strained or slightly sharp in the high notes. His performance was remarkable. Martina Belli made an impression as Smeton, the young musician in love with Anna; her velvety contralto was well suited to the part, her youthful physique perfect for the role.

****1