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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit