Small picture of Donizetti




Donizetti's Anna Bolena

Opera School Wales 2005



Opera School Wales production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena

The Opera School Wales 2005 production was of Donizetti's Anna Bolena, premiered at the Adelina Patti Theatre on February 26, 2005 and then on a short tour of England and Wales.  Several Society members saw the production at different venues and were all impressed by  the professional approach of the students and the high quality of the performance with a score ingeniously and imaginatively reduced by the musical director, Fraser Goulding, for an orchestra of 5 and a chorus of  2.  Below is a review of the opera and comments on the Adelina Patti theatre by Douglas Bennett that appeared in Newsletter 95.


Tudor Madness in Brecon and Craig-Y-Nos, 5th and 6th March, 2005

by Douglas Bennett

When I first heard that the Donizetti Society had decided to support the touring production of Anna Bolena by the Opera School of Wales I, along with many other members, probably thought that the streak of madness that invades some of the operas of our hero and cast a shadow over his declining years had struck at the committee of our Society. A long telephone conversation with one of the organisers, Bridgett Gill, about the production restored faith in our committee's sanity as well as confidence that the casts (most of the roles, including the eponymous heroine, had been doubly cast). It also covered the story of the Patti Theatre, bound inextricably with the falling fortunes of the diva's home at Craig-Y-Nos Castle in south Wales, and sowed the seed in my mind that this was not just a 'good cause' but would also give a last chance to view the little theatre before it enters a risky but essential period of refurbishment. By luck it turned out that our visit gave the opportunity to experience most of the cast options because the opera tour was visiting Brecon, a mere 30 miles away, the night before the second of two Sunday special performances at Craig-Y-Nos.

The first requirement for this risky venture (after getting the two sopranos' agreement to the role of Anna) must have been a workable edition of the opera. At 2 hours 40 minutes (The Sunday performance cut a tenor aria in Act 2 which reduced this by about 10 minutes) the performances can be considered fairly complete. The reduced band (violin, cello, flute, clarinet and keyboard) seems an insane economy until it has been heard. All the bone and sinews of the music remain (and most of the character). Some of the muscle and the flesh with all its surface sheen was less apparent, but the surprise was to find how few of the omitted parts were missed. That was the achievement of the conductor Fraser Goulding and his able team of soloists who collectively supported the singers with deft art and sympathetic flexibility.

Of the two Annas Vania Vatralova Stankov in Brecon gave the more polished performance whilst Claire Pendleton the following night displayed more raw emotion, which compromised a smooth vocal line. Zoe South as Seymour (both nights) seemed nervous at first but went on to surprise with a confident delivery on second hearing. Russell Ixer, the first Percy, was a sad loss to the role when Martin Quinn assumed it at Craig-Y-Nos, but luckily Ixer took over Hervey from an indisposed Richard Monk (who had been replaced in Brecon by the distinctly non-student Alan Rankin Crooks). Ixer's smooth high tenor felt ardent yet secure whilst Quinn adopted the braggadocio more common south of the Alps: he delivered a rougher wooing with less mellow vocalisation. Henry VIII, Ian Pope (a singularly inappropriate name!), had the square shape familiar in the Holbein portrait but delivered a pleasant bass voice that did not share the weight of his fur-encumbered silhouette. I have a soft spot for the impossibly immature and improbably voiced role of Smeaton and was rewarded with delightful renditions from both Hannah Pedley (Brecon) and Amanda Pyke (Craig-Y-Nos).

The Opera School Wales deserves the fullest praise for attempting the confused world of Tudor politics that Donizetti's opera inhabits and the daunting heights of its vocal demands. Divas with more secure reputations have tended with one spectacular exception (Callas) to leave this Everest of the Bel Canto repertoire to the closing years of their careers (wisely to judge by the effect early exposure had on the career of the sadly recently deceased Elena Souliotis). In terms of breathing life into the sometimes 2-dimensional characters of Italian opera the challenge to this team of emerging professionals (that did not have the protection of an existing following of sympathetic fans) might have been all the greater. The performance they gave demonstrated not just good schooling and preparation but gave the audience, judging from comments received, enormous and frequently unexpected pleasure. More than one asked, "Who is this Donizetti? Never heard of him till tonight!" If some of that reaction came from the conversion of 'Three Tenors' listeners to fuller appreciation of the music then the missionary work that we have supported has been vindicated. If in addition it means that we have helped bring some to people to this music for the first time then so much the better.

The Patti Theatre itself on the Sunday proved delightful. The oblong auditorium with semicircular back wall gave a generous acoustic that allowed the voices to bloom. The stage, although narrow, is commendably deep and even boasts a modest 'fly tower'. Heating must have been a nightmare. The first scenes were marred by the noise of a large heating fan, but thereafter the audience had to suffer in order to better hear the music. The ladies were provided with rugs for their knees but the men just had to shiver. The original décor has survived remarkably well but the devastation of dry rot in the jambs and skirting (the floor has already been replaced) is there for all to see. A campaign to raise the money for the urgent refurbishment has started but will has a long way to go.

And finally a few words about the Castle itself, from which the theatre has been buffered financially but to which it remains inextricably attached physically. It is run as 'accommodation' and we stayed there. The management display strange priorities: gold-plated taps but a breakfast of 'cash'n'carry' economy. But don't let that put you off seeking out this charming theatre with its operatic resonance and its echoes of a 19th century Eden that attracts us just as the rabbit hole tempted Alice.


Those interested in some of the more recent scholarship on Anna Bolena may like to read Alexander Weatherson's  article Anna Bolena riconosciuta from Newsletter 82.

Opera School Wales has kindly provided the following pictures from one of the performances and of the theatre.

Henry and Jane

Henry (Ian Pope) and Jane Seymour (Zoe South)

(all photographs courtesy of Opera School Wales)

Percy (Russell Ixer) and Anna (Vania Vatralova-Stankov)

Percy and Anna 

Anna and others

Chorus (Amanda Pyke, Sarahjane King), Percy (Russell Ixer), Rochefort ( Michael Sinanan), Anna (Vania Vatralova-Stankov)

Amanda Pyke, Vania Vatralova-Stankov, Sarahjane King

Anna and retainers


Opera School Wales 

The Opera School Wales (TOSW), founded in 1987, offers residential courses, masterclasses and other opera education facilities, mainly for trained singers, in the focussed and evocative environment of TOSW's permanent base, the Adelina Patti Theatre built for the prima donna in Craig-y-nos Castle, now in the Brecon Beacons National Park, where she was to retire.  The School also provides rare and invaluable performance experience, through professional tours undertaken at the culmination of the residential courses.  Many 'graduates' of The Opera School Wales, who include the 1995 Cardiff Singer of the World Katerina Karneus, have gone on to sing with major national companies.  

Places on these courses are already heavily subsidised but still present problems for some of the students. All of them are young professional singers, and many of them have to take time out from other paid work in order to participate.   For this reason, the School is always seeking sponsorship or bursary funding for individual singers.


The Adelina Patti Theatre

The Patti Theatre, built for the prima donna in Craig-y-nos Castle, now in the Brecon Beacons National Park, is currently entering a new phase with the formation of The Patti Theatre Preservation Trust, which aims to rescue and restore the Grade I listed theatre in order to preserve and enhance it for future generations. 

Patti Theatre interior

The theatre interior with names of composers round the top of the walls, Rossini taking pride of place over the top of the stage.  The theatre floor is hinged at the rear and can be raised and lowered at the front in order to provide either a level floor for dancing or a raked floor for the theatre.


Patti as Semiramide

One of the original splendid backdrops by Hawes Craven depicting Patti in the role of Semiramide



Another example of the backdrops





Page initially published in  2005