Donizetti lives! And with him a whole brace of English queens, kings and assorted royalty - central players in the dramatic happenings surrounding the Tudor monarchs of the 16th century.
Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, Percy and Smeton; Mary Queen of Scots and the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth I and Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex. All come to glowing, Technicolor life and urgent sound in Donizetti's trilogy of English queens, which has, alas, again fallen into semi-oblivion of late.(Still available are the estimable Beverly Sills recordings of "Anna Bolena," "Roberto Devereaux" and "Maria Stuarda" on the Angel label, and a few recordings by Callas, with whom the bel canto revival began.)
Perhaps most dedicated at present to the preservation and dissemination of historic bel canto opera are the husband and wife artists Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge. Sutherland's old recording of "Maria Stuarda" with Pavarotti and James Morris is still to be had, and now this new recording of "Anna Bolena" joins it.
Among the most poignant of historic tales is that of Anne Boleyn, whose own ambition and family pressure led her to forsake true love for royal misery and ultimately annihilation on the block at the Tower of London. Donizetti has fleshed out this gripping story with affecting solos, heartfelt duets and masterful ensembles.
Indeed, his beautiful and powerful music brings one face to face with the abyss with a spine-chilling presence and urgency seldom found in more pretentious modern music.
The tragedy of poor choices, the long arm of tragic coincidence, self-seeking royal decrees, the wheel of fortune that spins without regard to justice, the inevitability of unmerited punishment, courageous gallantry in the face of death; again and again, one must empathize with those caught in the clutches of destiny, and ask himself - what if it had been me?
The presentation here is exciting and beautiful, and one feels no lack in any important respect, as Bonynge leads this music of a sort whose shape, nuances and meanings he knows so well.
Sutherland's voice is wearing thin, the bloom is off, and she sounds less velvety than her associates. Yet she has plenty of business singing this music, for she is an artist of great depth and sincerity who comprehends the suffering of Anna and projects it touchingly. She sings beautifully within her present scope, her coloratura is accurate, and her high Cs and other notes in alt are firm and thrilling.
Much of the plot deals with Jane Seymour's guilty dilemma, and how she relates to Anna - with broken-hearted grief and repentance, with frustration that she can do nothing to save her, and finally in tearful capitulation to her fate, while still trying to temper Henry's wrath.
Susanne Mentzer is the striking florid mezzo in this role, which is in some ways more dramatic than that of Anna and makes soprano demands, with more than one high C. With a warm, vibrant voice of golden hue, Mentzer is utterly touching and affecting in her protestations, and her duets with Sutherland are highlights.
Between them stands the adamant Henry, sung with iron-clad authority and ringing baritone by Samuel Ramey. Bernadette Manca di Nissa, another mezzo of distinction, sings the page Smeton, so much a factor in Anna's downfall.
As Lord Richard Percy, Anna's first love, Jerry Hadley shows good florid facility and a warm, affecting tenor in the mid-range. He sometimes pushes over the top - a failing evident in several of his recent recordings, which may be due to over-exuberance, or to some vocal fault. At any rate, he should watch it. Giorgio Surian as Anna's brother Lord Rochefort fills out the cast effectively.
One enjoys the compact disc's freedom from surface and other recording flaws. But there appeared to be some over-balance on the treble side, with women's voices standing out above the men's, especially in conversational passages.