Anne Boleyn; Elizabeth I; Mary Stuart: Donizetti’s three queens might wear English and Scottish crowns, but it’s Italian fire and ice that runs in their veins. Passionate, imperious and devout, they’re the musical mothers of Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Desdemona – a relationship you can hear clearly in this exhilarating release from soprano Diana Damrau.

Diana Damrau album artwork

Avoiding a sequence of bel canto lollipops, Damrau instead opts for three great final scenes – the climactic final conversations, prayers and deaths that close each opera in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy. Commercially trickier to pitch, dramatically it’s much more satisfying – giving both Damrau and her listeners a run-up to the climactic arias, rooting them in character and context.

Damrau’s bel canto technique is secure as ever – trills and runs scrupulously clean – but the voice has lost a little of its suppleness. There’s now more steel in it than is ideal, particularly for Anne, whose power lies as much in her moments of vulnerability as virtuosity. But with Antonio Pappano whipping the Orchestra and Chorus of Santa Cecilia into an atmospheric frenzy – the strings chillingly anticipating the walk to the scaffold in Maria Stuarda, the chorus’s muttering multiplicity in Anna Bolena only adding to the heroine’s isolation – there’s plenty to enjoy.

Roberto Devereux shows Damrau at her best. Her Quel sangue versato balances control and release with thrilling precision, rising to a climactic Top D, though Anna Bolena’s Coppia iniqua runs it a close second for vengeful force. Supporting contributions are strong, especially from Sara Rocchi’s Anna and tenor Saverio Fiore’s Cecil, adding to the conviction of a disc that may serve up bleeding chunks of opera, but displays them with plenty of dramatic flair.

Title: Tudor Queens
Works: Scenes from Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux
Performers: Diana Damrau s, Orchestra & Chorus of Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano
Label: Erato 9029528093

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