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: wno.org.uk

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?

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge