The Tudors: Italian versions of English royals, done almost perfectly by the Welsh National Opera

After seeing Schiller’s play Maria Stuart, Donizetti created a new Tudor opera in which a central feature would be the meeting between Anne’s daughter Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. Such a meeting never took place but it makes for riveting drama, part

New Statesman
A statue of Gaetano Donizetti stands in Milan's opera house. Image: Getty

The Tudors: Donizetti’s Three Queens
Welsh National Opera

In the first half of the 19th century, Italy was a country divided. Napoleon had redrawn the political map in 1797 and outside powers ruled most of the land until its unification in 1861. Opera composers chafed under censorship – no wonder Gaetano Donizetti was attracted to stories of Tudor England, where Henry VIII had thrown off the yoke of Rome and Elizabeth I defied Catholic plots, later presiding over a British Renaissance.

Donizetti first achieved international fame in 1830 with Anna Bolena, an opera about the downfall and beheading of the queen. After seeing Schiller’s play Maria Stuart, he created a new Tudor opera in which a central feature would be the meeting between Anne’s daughter Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. Such a meeting never took place but it makes for riveting drama, particularly when Mary can restrain herself no longer and calls Elizabeth a vil bastarda.

She was indeed a bastard, from a Roman Catholic point of view, because Henry VIII never obtained an annulment from the pope before he married her mother, but the onstage spat caused emotions to run high, and at rehearsals in Naples the two sopranos came to blows from which one of them is said to have taken two weeks to recover.

Then, after a successful dress rehearsal, the king of Naples cancelled all performances – no one quite knows why – and Donizetti gave up on the city. A new attempt to stage the show in Milan the following year brought further trouble with censors and singers, including a prima donna who insisted on singing the original words.

Despite revivals in the mid-19th century, new types of operatic drama by Verdi and others caused Donizetti to fall out of favour. He had written in the bel canto style, which mostly disappeared until its revival in the second half of the 20th century. His work was barely heard for half a century at Covent Garden before Joan Sutherland sang the title role in that masterpiece set in Scotland, Lucia di Lammermoor.

Now, Welsh National Opera is on tour with a three-night crescendo of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, the last of which contrasts Elizabeth’s regal power with her vulnerability in trying to protect the Earl of Essex, resulting in a beautifully nuanced portrait of the queen.

I saw all three shows in Cardiff and they are hugely dramatic – not historically accurate, perhaps, but this is opera, with all its turning points and high drama. In Anna Bolena the youthful musician to Anne returns the portrait pendant he stole from her chambers; the king catches him and under clever persuasion he admits, falsely, to being her lover – utterly human, but with tragic consequences.

In Roberto Devereux, the drama turns when the Duke of Nottingham places his wife under house arrest so she cannot go to the queen with a ring that would save Devereux’s life. When at last she brings it, a huge cannon blast and flash of light reveals the victims of an execution. The queen of England suddenly turns very Italian, singing of blood rising to heaven, justice demanding revenge and unimaginable suffering awaiting the guilty ones. Thumpingly good stuff and, in the performance I saw, Daniele Rustioni conducted with such vigour that the audience burst into spontaneous applause after the overture alone.

Designs were consistent throughout the three operas, with everyone in black except for occasional splashes of colour for the queens, but my only serious complaint was the costume for Mary as she prepared for the gallows. History mentions careful attention to her attire: after her outer clothing was removed, petticoat and camisole were of crimson velvet to hide the bloodstains. Yet here we had a very explicit, Madonna-like leather bodice – dreadful. The music and singing were unmissable.

Welsh National Opera’s UK tour of “The Tudors” runs until 29 November. Details: wno.org.uk