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This Anna Bolena is an impressive production.
Following a successful outing with Maria Stuarda in 2015, Melbourne Opera returns to Donizetti's Tudor period, staging what is, remarkably, Anna Bolena's professional Australian debut. Dynamic singing, led by soprano Elena Xanthoudakis, is to the fore in this production that's also strong on historic drama and attractive design.
After Anna Bolena premiered in Milan in 1830, it enjoyed decades of success before falling out of favour, then rising again during the mid-20th century revival of the bel canto ('beautiful singing') style. The opera explores the final few months of Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded, officially due to infidelity. Her brother Lord Rochford, friend Henry Percy and musician Mark Smeaton were all implicated in her treason.
After a strong performance as Melbourne Opera's Maria Stuarda, Xanthoudakis again impressed in the title role. She demonstrated admirable stamina and technique, ably tackling the role's demanding coloratura trills, leaps and high notes right through to the intense final scene. Vocally and dramatically, it was a performance of considerable pathos, despite her reliance on mannered hand gestures.
As Anne's reluctant rival Jane Seymour, an indisposed Sally-Anne Russell was replaced by Sally Wilson on opening night. Somewhat wooden-faced throughout, and tentative during Act I, Wilson's warm mezzo and good technique was revealed in Act II, especially in the lustrous duet with Xanthoudakis – a performance highlight. Tenor Boyd Owen, as Percy, was occasionally stretched by the most difficult coloratura peaks, but his lyrical tenor and measured performance was generally pleasing.
The rest of the cast offered solid support, especially Eddie Muliaumaseali'i: with his imposing stature and powerful, effortless bass, he was a wonderfully menacing Henry VIII. In the pants role of Smeaton, Dimity Shepherd's agile mezzo and acting delighted, while Phillip Calcagno's Rochford was nicely done. Although his voice is past its prime, Geoffrey Harris was dignified as Henry's noble factotum, Hervey. The chorus was in excellent form, with the all-female passages particularly easy on the ear.
Not so easy were a few wobbly notes from the orchestra, which occasionally drowned out the singers. The latter is difficult to avoid in the intimate Athenaeum, and for the most part conductor Grey Hocking guided his band through a capable performance of the score prepared by Richard Divall (who also produced the English translation).
While the lack of surtitles made the lyrics fiendishly difficult to understand during complex ensembles and ornamented arias, the narrative and emotional flow were always clear. This was primarily due to the cast, but also the uncomplicated direction of Suzanne Chaundy – who deserves kudos for keeping the substantial cast moving freely around the tiny stage – and some very effective design.
Christina Logan-Bell draws heavily on her Maria Stuarda set, particularly the stage's Tudor rose motif, which is echoed in streamlined vertical partitions that seamlessly shift the scene from palace to garden to prison. This simple design creates space, literally and figuratively, and is an apt showcase for the the late Jennie Tate's stunning costumes. On loan from Opera Australia, her extremely rich, detailed designs recreate Tudor court attire. The principals' bejewelled and embroidered costumes really caught the eye, but each chorus member was also splendidly dressed.
This Anna Bolena is an impressive production considering the limitations of space and budget. Certainly it should not be missed by lovers of bel canto, who have not been well served in this country lately. The good news is there's more to come when Melbourne Opera completes its Donizetti Tudor trilogy in 2017 with Roberto Devereux.
Reviewer: Patricia Maunder