First performed in Milan on Boxing Day in 1830, Anna Bolena is cited as the one among the composer’s 73 operas that marked the start of his international success. The story of King Henry VIII’s preference for his Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, is based on Tudor history. The guileful King goes to lengths to bring his Queen into a compromising position, even bringing back her former lover, Lord Percy, from exile in hopes that she will be tempted to commit adultery. That plot fails, but Henry and members of his closest entourage cunningly stage a “crime” that ultimately leads to the deaths of the innocent, but that also clears the way for Jane Seymour as his next consort.

Anna Netrebko (Anna Bolena) © Monika Rittershaus
Anna Netrebko (Anna Bolena)
© Monika Rittershaus

Although Mark Väisänen’s set design for the production has little to do with the 16th century, I found it intriguing. The steel surround of both acts encased the stage in such a way that it resembled something out of a “Matrix” movie, allowing some striking lighting effects (Pascal Schmid, Manuela Dominguez-Cadisch). The upper half of the containment could be raised a notch to expose the choir, whose members sat facing out from three sides as if part of an intergalactic tribunal.

The setting had jumped almost 400 years forward from the Tudor to the Edwardian era. The period costumes (Marie-Luise Walek) − women’s white transparent gauze dresses and soft parasols, along with the men’s slim-fitting waistcoats and great top hats − stood for an era of privileged elegance, and set a shimmering veil over the undercurrents of betrayal and deviousness that Henry had up his sleeve. Interestingly, Anna’s costuming sets her apart; she alone appears in Renaissance garments of sumptuous brocades whose colours change as the plot unravels. All in white at the start of the opera, Anna subsequently appears in bright green; her knowledge of the betrayal “grows”. She faces her fate in a gown of rose-coloured bronze, as richly textured as the coloratura of her voice, and goes to the block in a washed-out grey. Logically, the Queen’s conscience-torn rival Jane Seymour (Veronica Simeoni) is dressed in inviting red silks and satins that make her a convincing lure for the King’s affections.

Anna Netrebko (Anna Bolena) and Judith Schmid (Smeton) © Monika Rittershaus
Anna Netrebko (Anna Bolena) and Judith Schmid (Smeton)
© Monika Rittershaus

As for the vocal achievements, Anna Netrebko shows a consummate command of her trade: As the unjustly accused Queen, she offers a palette of warmth and round tones, nuances in timbre over lengthy and highly demanding passages, textures like the velvet befitting her character. And she embraces the very substance of Bolena; spitting over her accusations like a viper − even using her teeth to her advantage − but showing heart-warming tenderness towards her young daughter (the future Elizabeth I) whose addition to the usual cast of principals is a well-chosen asset. Simeoni’s talents were simply overshadowed by her female counterpart until well into the first act; but given some stage time, she gained on the Queen’s model.

Luca Pisaroni was superb in his role as King Henry, fixed as it was somewhere between a star ship commander and a Jean-Paul Belmondo wannabe − complete with dark shades and a long white scarf. He counters Seymour’s objections to their illicit liaison with a devious “no more torments of conscience… soothe your spirits with your king”, singing in a tone as easy for her to believe as it was for the audience to recognize as naughty. Anna’s one-time lover Percy (Ismael Jordi) was a little too much “the-boy-next-door” for my taste, and he had trouble with the higher register. Nonetheless, his part in the quintet “This day that began so nicely…” towards the end of Act I made for one of the absolute highlights of the evening.

Luca Pisaroni (Enrico) and Véronica Simeoni (Giovanna) © Monika Rittershaus
Luca Pisaroni (Enrico) and Véronica Simeoni (Giovanna)
© Monika Rittershaus

By the same token, Judith Schmid, in the trouser role of Smeton, possessed a steady and infinitely likeable sound, and her figure on stage was a convincing mix of jealous eavesdropper and young man pining for the Queen’s attention. The lesser roles of Rochefort (Ruben Drole) and the conspiring Hervey (Yujoong Kim) were also sung commendably. Finally, under Ukrainian conductor Andriy Yurkevych’s baton, the Philharmonia Zürich gave a rousing and memorable performance.

Two scenes in particular will stay with me a long time. First, at the beginning of Act II, the imprisoned Anna stands before a gallery of even hugely oversized Baroque-framed smoky mirrors, while the choir sang, “Oh where are the false flatterers of her happy days?” The illusion of golden memories did not go unnoticed, nor did the fact that we − the audience, the glass reflected − were among the partners in crime. Anna’s loneliness was terrifically poignant there. Equally effective dramatically was her decapitation. When another huge gold-gilt frame was lowered from the heights, Netrebko − again with her back to the audience − stretched her arms out, side to side, and bent forward over its lowermost slat. Poof! Her head was gone: The simplest of devices, yes, but one with a powerful effect. 

****1