Anna Bolena/Hackney Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

English Touring Opera really are getting their act together, with two other new productions in addition to Donizetti's seldom-seen Anna Bolena. And, as ETO director James Conway observes, it can't hurt their box-office that the English queen famously beheaded with a sword is currently getting so much attention.

That detail is omitted in the ETO production, in which the queen bares her neck for an axe. No matter; Donizetti took larger liberties with history in order to achieve dramatic punch. In this early work, he doesn't have the unerring sense of pace and structure he became famous for: from the moment the curtain rises on Soutra Gilmour's minimal but evocative Tudor set, we are too suddenly plunged into a world of fear, suspicion, pain and guilt, bodied in Julia Riley's opening aria as Jane Seymour.

And when Riccardo Simonetti makes his dainty entry as Henry VIII, Riley all but blows him off the stage: his musical performance is beautifully judged, but one looks in vain for massive male aggression. But in Julie Unwin, as Anna Bolena, Riley has the ideal foil: in their duet at the start of Act II their voices balance each other perfectly, Riley's dramatic mezzo offsetting Unwin's lyric soprano.

Two other singers stand out: the Brazilian tenor Luciano Botelho sounds purer and sweeter the higher he soars, while Serena Kay's gracefully masculine Smeaton holds the stage. In fact, there's not one weak link in this whole cast.

Touring to 24 May (