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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge