Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in Passau

Anna Bolena, one of Donizetti’s operas on the Tudors, performed in Passau but with an English director/designer, Ultz, as well as an English conductor, Basil Coleman. You might have thought that this augured well for an authentic presentation of English history. But the decision by Ultz to turn the piece into a commentary on the British obsession with the monarchy and the intrusion of the media into their private lives was a perversion of the original which is about the impact of political power on love. Drawing parallels with the Princess Diana history did not succeed; it trivialised, rather than enhanced, the tragedy and was irritating to watch. The presence of television coverage and the paparazzi was visually distracting and awkward scenographically, for example, the reporters and photographers not knowing what to do with themselves when not singing as the chorus. The interplay between the principal characters did work reasonably well when not surrounded by all the razzmatazz but some of these more intimate scenes did lapse into gratuitous tastelessness. It was not necessarily a bad idea to have the singers strip down to their underwear for the love scenes, but the problem which Lord Richard Percy had in getting back into his trousers during a magnificent Act One ensemble could surely have been avoided.

There were some musical compensations. Under Coleman’s sensitive direction, we were made aware that this early opera of Donizetti has a most effective score. In the title role, the Chinese soprano Yitian Luan presented a powerful figure and vocally had some fine moments, especially when she lingered over the phrasing in the more introspective passages. Victor Campos Leal as Percy has a light tenor well suited to the bel canto repertory and gave pleasure as long as he remained within his comfort zone and did not force the voice. This cannot be said of Guido Jentjens, whose hoarse and sometimes approximately-pitched utterings marred a dramatically convincing performance as King Henry.

Reinhild Buchmayer was a sweet-voiced Smeaton, but the best all-round performance was given by the Ukrainian mezzo Iryna Zhytynska. She totally inhabited the role of Jane Seymour. At times proud and seductive, at times lacking self-confidence, she could also, in her dealings with the Queen, constrain elation in her amorous achievements, with sensitivity and doubt. And all of this came across in her singing as well as her physical movements: subdued colours and volume for her insecurity; rich full-voiced tones for her passion.

So, an evening when irritation with a misconceived staging competed with respect for Donizetti and for some of the exponents of his music.