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

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:

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

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide