Anna Bolena at Amsterdam

With astute management, imaginative programming and employment of first-rate artists, the Netherlands Opera has in recent years been steadily moving up the Premier League of European opera companies. It has largely avoided the bel canto repertory; so, it was interesting to learn of the decision to embark on Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy, initiated with a truly outstanding performance of Anna Bolena. Admittedly, what made it so impressive was not so much the dazzling coloratura singing associated with this style of Italian opera but rather the intense drama generated by the musical idiom and reinforced by Jetske Mijnssen’s superb production.

This was no trite historical pageant with colourful costumes and extravagant sets; instead, a bleak psychological exploration of the fate of a woman caught in a hinterland of rejection and betrayal. Ben Baur’s stage designs contributed much to this approach. The action took place in a large, bare hall surrounded by massive doors which both constrained the freedom of those within and metaphorically were opened occasionally to admit the entry of external forces and provide glimpses of the world beyond. And Anne Boleyn’s dusky costumes and slow, deliberate movements were contrasted not only with her rival Jane Seymour’s white gown and lithe comportment but also with the similarly attired dancing courtiers.

The narrative in Felice Romani’s libretto – Henry’s efforts to displace Anne by allegations of an affair with her ex-lover Percy – was followed but not treated with over-zealous literalism and indeed was embellished by the inclusion of her young daughter Elizabeth, symbolically enabling the latter to learn about the perils of monarchic power especially when threatened by erratic relationships. Consistently with this, Henry is not portrayed simply as a brutal tyrant but rather as a victim of emotional waywardness, unable to resist the consequences of his own desires.

Musically, the evening was in the very secure hands of Enrique Mazzola. To consolidate Mijnssen’s approach, he adopted a largely restrained, introspective interpretation of the score, lingering over the singers’ self-doubting phrases and emphasising the darker timbres of the instrumental passages, as expertly exposed by the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. But he was also capable of unleashing more powerful forces when emotional climaxes were reached.

That was also true of Marina Rebeka’s remarkable assumption of the title role, revealing a virtuosity in capturing the range of emotions arising from Anne’s predicament and vocalising them. She was well matched by Raffaella Lupinacci’s extroverted Jane Seymour and Adrian Sâmpetrean’s understated Henry. As Percy, Ismael Jordi deployed his fine tenor but failed to provide a convincing dramatic profile for the role. In contrast, mezzo Cecilia Molinari made much of her brief contributions as Smeaton.

A staggeringly good all-round evening of music theatre, amply demonstrating that bel canto and high drama are not necessarily incompatible.