Review: Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Beautifully Sung “Anna Bolena” Completes Dallas Opera’s Tudor Trilogy, November 14, 2010

In 2008 Dallas Opera began a three season project, enlisting the team of British Stage Director Stephen Lawless and Belgian Set Designer Benoit Dugardyn to create new productions of three operas by Gaetano Donizetti – “Maria Stuarda” (2008), “Robert Devereux” (2009), and “Anna Bolena” (2010).

The three operas, at least since the time of the late soprano Beverly Sills, have been referred to as the “Tudor Trilogy” – whose story lines are inspired by events in the lives of the Tudor King Henry VIII, his second and third wives, Ann Boleyn and Jane Howard, his niece Mary Stuart and his second daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I.

[Below: Oren Gradus as Enrico, King Henry VIII; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

The Dallas Opera performance run of the latest offering, “Anna Bolena”, was not without stress and tragedy. Denyce Graves, the Giovanna Seymour, announced that during the third performance she had suffered an early pregnancy miscarriage. She attempted and completed the fourth performance, but withdrew from the final matinee, which I attended. To replace her as Giovanna, Dallas Opera secured the services of Illinois soprano Kallen Esperian.

[Below: Kallen Esperian (shown here in the title role of Puccini’s “Tosca”) sang the role of Giovanna Seymour in the final performance; edited image, based on a photograph from]

Esperian proved a salutary choice as Graves’ final performance replacement, her extended second act scene that includes the famous duet Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio with Hasmik Papian’s Anna Bolena, receiving an extended ovation from the Dallas Opera audience.

The Donizetti Revival, Stages One and Two

In the mid-20th century, the regularly performed Donizetti operas were limited to “Lucia di Lammermoor” and, to a lesser extent, three of his comedies. But several sopranos – Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe and Beverly Sills – became associated with roles in long-neglected Donizetti operas. Many of the revived operas, including those in the “Tudor Trilogy”, now are produced often enough to regard them as part of the “active” operatic repertory.

In producing an opera, if one approaches it as a vehicle for a prima donna rather than a dramatically valid work, those dramatic elements would not be the production’s priority. Although in some 20th century productions of Donizetti operas (particularly in “Lucia” and “Maria Stuarda”) attention to the drama was a major consideration, I believe we now are in a “second stage” of a Donizetti revival that gives high priority to the staging and dramatic flow.

I have argued on this site that the operas of Gaetano Donizetti (and, to a much greater extent than his reputation seems to warrant, his great contemporary Vincenzo Bellini) advanced the cause of music drama. Stage director Stephen Lawless’ work, in my view, confirms my argument, unlocking the dramatic elements that I believe are inherent in Donizetti’s works (including his major comedies.)

[Below: trapped in a dangerously compromising situation, Anna Bolena (Hasmik Papian), Percy (Stephen Costello) and Smeton (Elena Belfiore) can find no way of escape; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Notes on the Lawless-Dugardyn “Tudor Trilogy”

Some argue that the three operas of the so-called “Tudor Trilogy” (a concept that would have been unfamiliar to Donizetti) should not be characterized  a trilogy, because they were not conceived as one. The Lawless-Dugardyn productions, however, not only embrace the trilogy concept, but develop a set structure and a series of performance symbols that integrate the story lines of “Anna Bolena”, “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux”.

The sets for the three operas are organized around a four story “Wooden O” suggesting the Bard’s Globe Theater. In “Bolena” the stage floor and the second level are obscured by wooden walls, but costumed figures appear from time to time on the third and fourth levels.

Where Donizetti Docu-Opera and Tudor History Diverge

Donizetti’s contribution to the worlds of music and drama are in the artful construction of musical theater that permits the glorification of the vocal skills of classically trained opera singers in the context of interesting, swift-moving dramatic situations. His interests were setting drama to music, rather than doing research in English history. Felice Romani’s libretto was based on the writings of Italian dramatist Ippolito Pindemonte, who embellished the already pretty amazing real historical occurrences with non-historical events.

There is not universal agreement even among English history scholars of all of the facts in the case against Anne Boleyn. Anne, her page, Mark Smeaton (the opera’s Smeton) and Anne’s brother (the opera’s Rochefort) were certainly charged and executed, and Percy certainly was not. Even so, the story of a previous romantic relationship between Percy and Anne, considered credible by most scholars, fits nicely into Felice Romani’s libretto, and, even if Percy was not tried and convicted for adultery with Anne, another young nobleman was. (Tudor England is not the only society in which persons on the wrong side of a political power struggle might find it impossible to defend themselves against ludicrous charges.)

Director Lawless, knowing that he is demonstrating the dramatic possibilities of an important bel canto opera, instead of producing a Tudor documentary, takes a step into historical fantasy beyond what Romani and Donizetti would have imagined. The small comprimario role of Hervey (a court official), nicely played by California tenor Aaron Blake in his Dallas Opera debut performances, is augmented so that Hervey becomes a kind of 16th century Piers Gaveston to Henry VIII.

Hervey, who in the opera, does get standing orders to spy on Anna and her friends and acts as a heavy throughout the opera, in this production will do anything to please the sovereign, and Henry shows his affection for his favorite by having him feed him grapes and by fondling his hair. Historians (and other Italian opera stage directors) may take issue with such intimacy, but I find that adding Hervey’s smarmy presence to certain scenes add to their effectiveness.

[Below: Henry VIII (Oren Gradus, right) uses the courtier Hervey (Aaron Blake, left) to set the traps that will ensnare the wife of whom he wishes to dispose; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

As the opera orchestra, under British Conductor (and Dallas Opera Music Director) Graeme Jenkins, plays the opera’s orchestral beginning, three movable display cases (a motif that appears later in the trilogy) come into view.  The cases are inspected by a young strawberry blonde girl, whom we recognize as the future Queen Elizabeth I. One case contains her mother the queen’s robes, the other those of her father the king’s, the third the sword and the block on which her mother’s death occurs.

Fantasy symbology is used sparingly but is invariably interesting. Plot devices involving hunts occur in both “Bolena” and “Stuarda” and men who represent deer are present during these episodes.

[Below: Henry VIII (Oren Gradus), whose “deer-man” has battled with that of Henry Percy makes the gesture to kill the losing man that ends the opera’s first act as his wife Anna Bolena (Hasmik Papian, back left) looks on; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

I saw two of the three trilogy operas in Dallas, the third (“Stuarda”) in Toronto. The two Dallas performances shared the two main leads, Hasmik Papian (Anna Bolena and Elisabetta in “Roberto Devereux”) and Stephen Costello (Percy in “Bolena” and Devereux). Graeme Jenkins conducted both of the Trilogy operas I saw in Dallas.

Both Papian and Costello displayed voices of power and dramatic intensity. They were joined by the intense performance of Gradus’ Henry VIII. Italian soprano Elena Belfiore as the fatally lovesick Smeton presented an arresting portrait of a young man of boyish demeanor. Texas bass (with Dallas his hometown) Mark McCrory rounded out the uniformly excellent cast as Anne’s doomed brother George, Lord Rochefort.

[Below: Percy (Stephen Costello, left) discusses Anna’s problems at court with her brother, Lord Rochefort (Mark McCrory, right); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

Imprisonment in a Lawless-Dugardyn production means that a barred cage, representing a jail cell, drops from above to surround a character. We had seen the Earl of Essex so imprisoned in the production of “Roberto Devereux”. In Anna’s case there are four prisoners, Boleyn, Rochefort, Smeton and Percy.

[Below: Condemned to die for treason, adultery or incest (or all three) are Anna Bolena (Hasmik Papian, in white, standing), Smeton (Elena Belfiore, left bottom), Rochefort (Mark McCrory, bottom center) and Percy (Stephen Costello, right); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

My trips to Europe and elsewhere in recent days meant that I could only schedule the last of the five performances in Dallas. However, the Lawless-Dugardyn “Tudor Trilogy” franchise will continue in Toronto and elsewhere. I believe that each of the three opera productions in the series should be seen for their interesting staging and insights into the somewhat fantastic early 19th century Italian viewpoint on 16th century English history.