Donizetti composed Anna Bolena in 1830 for a formidable cast, including Giuditta Pasta in the title role and Giovanni Battista Rubini as Percy. Rubini was an exceptionally gifted tenor, with a high, agile voice; he created roles such as Gualtiero in Il pirata, Elvino in La sonnambula and Arturo in I puritani. The music written for him is demanding both in extension and in coloratura. It was not suited to the run-of-the-mill tenors that Donizetti had to engage in the following productions of Bolena, so he modified it, lowering the tessitura, taming the coloratura.

Shelley Jackson (Anna Bolena) and Edgardo Rocha (Percy)
© Alan Humerose

For the debut of the opera in this theatre, the Opéra de Lausanne presents the original 1830 “Rubini” version, with Rossini specialist Edgardo Rocha in the role of Percy, Anna’s first love. He did justice to Rubini’s fame, his tenor easy and brilliant in the high register, fast and precise in the coloratura. His frequent ventures in the super-high register were exciting and confident: he produced an E flat in the Act 1 aria, and even an E natural in Act 3! A minor incident occurred during the aria in Act 3; some high notes “broke” in his throat (it sounded like a little mucus), which made his subsequent, successful attempt to reach the super-high E natural all the bolder and more exciting.

The production by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera was innovative and original, setting the story in 1536, in London, with period costumes and all the characters representing exactly who they were supposed to be – a challenging and controversial choice these days. The set designs by Gary McCann were ominous and dark, but the intelligent lighting by Franco Marri rendered them lively and interesting. Fernand Ruiz' costumes were lavish: Henry VIII was dressed exactly like the iconic portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger (a reproduction of which was on stage in Act 1), while the chorus was a blaze of Tudor style. I enjoyed the red and the gold, the velvet and the brocade, the headpieces on the women and the white silk stockings on the men. It was very Zeffirelli: over the top and splendid. The direction did take some risky liberties with the plot, notably a naked Jane Seymour running away from the King’s quarters while the chorus sings in the anti-chamber at the beginning of the opera. The duet between Anna and her brother revealed an incestuous relationship, a hint of the accusations brought against her in the trial where she was sentenced to death.

Shelley Jackson (Anna Bolena)
© Alan Humerose

The Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, under the baton of director Roberto Rizzi Brignoli, gave a detailed and lively reading of Donizetti’s original score. The tempi were at times a bit slower than I would have expected, but overall, he drove the action forward with authority, helping the singers and the chorus throughout. The chorus’ performance was excellent, both precise and thoughtful in the dynamics.

Anna Bolena was Shelley Jackson, whose soprano is supported by a great middle register, velvety and burnished, which explodes in fireworks of brilliant, powerful high notes. The volume of her voice was impressive and exciting, with a remarkable range of dynamics. There could be some improvement in the breathing technique: she seemed to breathe very often, at times sounding uneasy, even stopping in the middle of a cadenza to gasp for breath. This interfered with her legato, and the slow, lyrical parts (such as “Al dolce guidami”) were not as successful as others. Her acting was remarkable; she managed to express all the different facets of Anna’s personality: the humiliated queen, the abused, terrified wife, the tender lover, the magnanimous ruler who forgives her rival Jane Seymour.

Mika Kares (Enrico) and Ketevan Kemoklidze (Giovanna)
© Alan Humerose

Ketevan Kemoklidze was a convincing Seymour, her mezzo powerful and secure. Her vibrato may have been a little too wide in some high notes, but overall her performance was brilliant. The first act duet with Enrico was one of the highlights of the evening. Enrico is portrayed by Donizetti and Romani (the librettist) as a deeply selfish, ruthless tyrant, whose only preoccupations are his own pleasure and whims. Finnish singer Mika Kares was perfect in the part: his deep, earthy bass well suited to the all-powerful king, roaring in rage or frustration, his bel canto technique always on point, with elegant phrasing and agile coloratura. At two metres tall, he cut a tremendous figure on stage in full regalia, posing as Henry did for Holbein’s portrait.

The cast was competently completed by Cristina Segura in the breeches role of Smeton, the young Cherubino-like character who is in love with Anna and unwittingly brings her to her ruin; Daniel Golossov as Rochefort, Anna’s brother; and Aurélien Reymond-Moret as Hervey, Enrico’s aid.

The evening sealed a successful, long-awaited debut of Anna Bolena in Lausanne.