Donizetti’s Anna Bolena Invitation to a Beheading

The Wiener Singakademie and the Radio Symphony Orchestra: A Fine Portrait of the Mental Breakdown of a Tormented Queen

The RSO in rehearsal under the baton of the French conductor Betrand de Billy

Music history claims that Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) made his final musical breakthrough with a drama serioso based on the tragic death of Anne Boleyn (1501–1536), the second and best-documented wife of English King Henry VIII, who had his wife beheaded following an alleged love affair.

The two-act opera is a well-crafted, substantial portrait of the mental breakdown of the leading character.

This, and the demands of the lead role may well be the reasons that this highly dramatic work is rarely seen on an opera stage today.

The legendary revival of Anna Bolena at La Scala in Milan in 1957, for example, featured Maria Callas.

With all its difficulties, this Wiener Konzerthaus production with the Wiener Singakademie and the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna was a fine concert performance of the complete opera. It was well cast and restored all the cuts of earlier staged performances, thus offering the packed house on Mar. 30 a rare opportunity to hear the full musical scale of the drama.

A concert performance of an opera always faces the problem of balancing voices and an orchestra that is on stage with the cast and chorus. And regrettably, there were quite a few moments where the Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna (RSO), under the baton of the French conductor Betrand de Billy, became simply overpowering.

Although a symphony orchestra, the RSO Vienna is also an experienced opera orchestra, performing regularly at the Theater an der Wien, among other venues.

And here, the music was exquisitely performed and the instrumental colors, the winds and horns especially, were particularly sparkling in the first act, where the main characters meet at a hunting party in the woods.

The portrayals of the women were particularly noteworthy: Romanian dramatic Soprano Elena Mosuc as Anna Bolena was convincing, even heartbreaking, delivering coloraturas that were virtuosic yet never studied. the role of Jane Seymour, Anna’s rival and the wife-to-be of Henry VIII, is an equally challenging role dramatically, and was sung with warmth by Mezzosoprano Ruxandra Donsoe, also Romanian by birth and now a rising star of the Wiener Staatsoper.

The exchanges of the two women were powerful and musically exciting; as we realize that Seymour will eclipse Bolena in the king’s affections, both voices seem to careen toward  a breaking point, the new love senses the presence of danger as much as the lover abandoned.

Of the male characters, only the Korean bass-baritone Kwangchul Youn’s portrait of the calculating and charismatic Henry VIII offered real variety, the sharp contrasts in vocal colors in the low ranges worthy of the steadiness of his character.

The Italian Roberto Sacca, who sang Anna’s former lover Richard Percy – the only substantial role for a tenor in this opera – did not match the agility of Mosuc’s dramatic performance, as he lacked the flexibility and power for this royal challenger and showed signs of struggling in the higher registers.

Also worth noting was the Bulgarian alto Nadia Krasteva, entrusted with the part of the Cherubino-like pants role of Anna’s page Smeton, who is also in love with the Queen.

The chorus parts by the Wiener Singakademie were sparse – about 20 minutes of singing altogether of a score originally written for belcanto soloists, which felt disappointing.

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