Melbourne Opera continues their lavish presentation of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy with the Australian professional premiere of dramatically charged bel canto opera Anna Bolena.
Donizetti’s 1830 opera features a compelling storyline peopled with intriguing historical figures. Anna Bolena covers the final three months of the life of doomed Queen Anne Boleyn, as she spirals from rosily beloved royal to mentally unbalanced prisoner.
Leading a uniformly strong cast, soprano Elena Xanthoudakis gives a tour de force performance in the title role. In an impressively calibrated performance, Xanthoudakis dazzles with her sharp dramatic focus and incredible stamina rather than with showy vocal pyrotechnics. Not that Xanthoudakis is not capable of pyrotechnics, as utilised to brilliant effect in the final moments of the opera. Following a spellbinding mad scene and gorgeous prayer, set to the strains of “Home, Sweet Home,” Xanthoudakis produces a final flourish of splendour, still sounding like she could go back the start and sing the whole opera again.
Benefitting from the extraordinarily detailed work of Richard Divall in preparing the translation and performing edition, conductor Greg Hocking leads the Melbourne Opera Orchestra in a remarkably fine performance of Donizetti’s delightfully melodic score. Expressive playing from woodwind adds intriguing colour to Anne’s mad scene, and the brass enjoy many rousing moments contributing the sense of pomp to the royal court.
Director Suzanne Chaundy maintains a strong sense of royal decorum, avoiding melodrama as the royal soap opera unfolds as a tense drama. The opera is a little slow to begin, but it soon becomes clear that Donizetti and original librettist Felice Romani need time to establish the characters and their various relationships. The drama builds throughout act one to a thrilling finale, as the King charges Anne, her one-time lover Percy, her loyal brother Lord Rochefort and her besotted musician Mark Smeaton with adulterous treason.
Linking their trilogy, Melbourne Opera has been sure to include the brief appearance of Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I (played demurely by Evie Rose Lowcock), who is the one character to appear in each of Donizetti’s Tudor operas.
The Melbourne Opera Chorus makes a significant contribution to the magnificence of this act one finale, and are in excellent voice throughout the whole evening. Chorus master Raymond Lawrence has reliably prepared the chorus to exacting standards, and they rise to the occasion superbly. As well as massed choruses, the opera includes individual male and female choruses, each of which is an absolute pleasure to hear.
In a deliberate design nod to the trilogy, staging for Anna Bolena is visually tied to 2015 thriller, Mary Stuart. Set designer Christina Logan-Bell miraculously makes the rather modest stage of the Athenaeum look vast, with a sweeping floor of tiled Tudor roses and the suggestion of cavernous space at the rear wall. The abstract, representational scenic elements are expertly constructed, richly attractive and entirely effective in their creation of the multiple scenes required for the sumptuous saga.
Excellent use is made of the spectacular costumes on loan from Opera Australia (and designed by Jennie Tate). The women of court look stunning in regal shades of green. Anne Boleyn initially stands out in ruby red, before dialing down the glamour as she faces charges of adultery. Meanwhile, following her promise of marriage from the king, lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour takes the reverse trajectory, transitioning into far more decadent gowns. In tunic, fur-trimmed robe and velveteen feathered flat cap, King Henry VIII looks like he has stepped straight out of a Renaissance oil painting.
Replacing indisposed artist Sally-Anne Russell, the key role of Jane Seymour was sung on opening night by Sally Wilson. Singing with a warm depth and unwavering tone, mezzo-soprano Wilson seemed a little underprepared in terms of facial expression in the role. The emotional heart of the story is the act two confrontation between Anne and Jane, in which Anne learns her fate is sealed as Jane is to be the next Queen. Wilson delivered her strongest work in this enthralling scene.
As Anne’s thwarted lover Richard Percy, tenor Boyd Owen was a clear audience favourite. A neatly understated dramatic actor, Owen maintains a focused presence while allowing the spotlight to remain on the key female characters. Owen’s tenor voice pours forth luxuriously, reaching high notes with seemingly little effort.
Eddie Muliaumaseali’i uses his imposing stature to great effect as Henry VIII, his powerful bass voice clearly representing the King’s dominant nature. In fine voice, as always, baritone Phillip Calcagno successfully adds another dramatic role to his repertoire as Lord Rochefort.
Her blonde beauty hidden beneath page boy wig and cap, mezzo soprano Dimity Shepherd is unrecognisable as Anne’s page Mark Smeaton. Elevating the stature of this supporting role with her highly committed performance, talented singing actress Shepherd once again shows why she is one of Melbourne’s most valued stage performers.
Lovers of sumptuous period opera will be sure to enjoy Anna Bolena.
Anna Bolena plays again at Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne on 5 and 9 November 2016, as well playing Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on 12 November 2016.
Photos: Robin Halls