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Anna Bolena tells the story of the last days of Anne Boleyn’s life. Originally his mistress, Anne is now Henry VIII’s second wife and Queen of England. Unfortunately, she has been unable to give him the male heir he desires. Henry doesn’t exactly handle this well – first beginning an affair with Anne’s friend, Jane Seymour, then plotting to entrap her in a lie of his own construction to frame her for adultery thus giving him a reason to have her executed.
While there’s certainly not a lot of optimism in the storyline, there’s so much beauty for an audience to experience here: The delirious cacophony as the orchestra tunes before the show starts; a stunning Tudor rose writ large on the stage floor once the curtain is raised; The spectacle of costumes and voices in abundance as both Henry and Anne’s respective entourages filled the space in scenes of holding court or hunting in the woods; and of course – the performances.
Sally Wilson was due to take over the role of Jane Seymour later in the run of the show, however, due to illness, she was require to perform the role from opening night. Her performance was brilliant, not only in the way she wielded her voice and body, but also in how she acted as counterpoint to Elena Zanthoudakis in the role of Anne. Their duet together – beginning in a dark place of fear and suspicion, ending with forgiveness and love – was perhaps the most beautiful piece of the entire night.
The role of Anne is challenging in many ways, let alone in how Elena has to carry herself in her journey as it drives the story. It’s shocking when we see her for the first time after the interval, after Anne’s arrest and her awaiting a sentence of death. Yes, her costume has become much plainer, but true heartbreak affects more than just emotions, and Elena carries Anne’s body so much… well, smaller.
It gives every moment afterwards such pathos, while making the final moment of the show itself a triumph. Anne accepts her actions and where those have ended up. She is noble and will go to her death with the stature that we first saw her possess. Anne stands upright. The curtain falls (metaphorically and literally, it came down very fast in those last seconds as she stood).
I genuinely had no idea a human being could sing with the bass that Eddie Muliaumaseali’i brought in his performance of Henry. As casual as his costumes sometimes appeared, he never conducted himself other than as the King and the presence was compelling to watch.
Dimity Shepherd had a lovely turn as Smeaton, with some nice moments of physical comedy. Boyd Owen as Anne’s former lover, Percy, and Phillip Calcagno as Anne’s brother Lord Rochefort, also conducted themselves with strong performances. All three walked that fine balance of emphasising the emotional stakes without letting it tip over into melodrama.
Another highlight was when the character’s Percy, Jane, the King, Anna, and Rochefort, came together singing at one point like aural origami – everyone’s sounds folding over on each other’s in glorious fashion.
As an opera-attending novice, I’m still considering how one actually does judge an opera? By all accounts, if we were to grade Anna Bolena on a scale based on how loud the older Italian gentleman sitting behind me was shouting during the curtain call, then by my count this was a “27 screams of ‘Brava!’ out of 10” night.
Reviewer: David Collins