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Anne Boleyn, second wife of England’s King Henry VIII and familiar figure of history embedded in the upheavals of the English Reformation, is sanctified in glorious and dark dramatic form in Donizetti’s two-act opera from 1830, Anna Bolena.
Local audiences have waited long for her operatic adaptation but Melbourne Opera have finally brought her to the stage with dignified life, unto her death, in its Australian professional premiere.
Set in the final days before her execution in 1536, Donizetti and librettist Felice Romani imbue the queen with multifarious emotive characteristics that accompany her waning power over her domain and eventually over herself. Anne walks to her death staunchly innocent of adultery, incest and treason, unjustly punished by her unscrupulous husband and king.
From its original Italian, Richard Divall’s new English translation would’ve benefited from surtitles that help to expose plot-building details that are otherwise lost. Not even aficionados have the ears to extricate every word from three hours of luscious bel canto singing.
Donizetti nonetheless laid divinely crafted dramatic signposts that form a thrilling visceral world. On opening night, Melbourne Opera flashed many of them with spine tingling splendour but struggled to sustain streamlined musical and vocal excellence.
Not so soprano Elena Xanthoudakis as Anne, who also sang the title role in Maria Stuarda last year. Xanthoudakis expressed the requisite pathos of the doomed queen and channelled it in rich supple-voiced splendour. Limited contrived hand gesturing worked against her but when Xanthoudakis took on the madness of Act 2’s Coppia Iniqua and subsequent final defiant burst, her performance was complete.
Xanthoudakis also shares a highlight in her pivotal Act 2 duet with soprano Sally Wilson’s Jane Seymour, Anne’s lady-in-waiting and future queen. Replacing Sally-Anne Russell on opening night, Wilson’s tentative start blossomed into lustrous peaks to display great technique and a thick creamy quality despite portraying a disconcertingly reserved figure.
From first appearance, golden-toned tenor Boyd Owen gave an appealingly strong and well-measured performance as Percy, the man who still holds Anne to his heart with his doleful prison aria Vivi tu, te ne scongiuro, confirming his abilities.
Carrying the weight of King Henry, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i disappointed with a lack of secureness in his garb and wavering in voice but the burnt caramel bass tone struck momentary gold and slotted deliciously into the ensemble.
Phillip Calcagno’s handsomely toasty baritone soundly filled the role of Anne’s brother, a chivalrous Lord Rochefort. Dimity Shepherd impressively enlivened Smeaton, court musician and crucial hinge in the plot and, in particular the ladies, Melbourne Opera Chorus generously provided en pointe singing.
Resurrected from Maria Stuarda, Christina Logan Bell’s striking stylised set featuring the Tudor Rose provides space for the sumptuous costumes designed by Jennie Tate for Opera Australia’s wardrobe, giving the eyes much to feast on while bathing in the bel canto. They don’t, however, hide the patchiness in Suzanne Chaundy’s direction that results in abrupt and potholed momentum shifts.
A few misfired notes emanated from the pit of more than 40 musicians but conductor Greg Hocking leveraged adequate colour and form.
But despite all the bravo, brava and bravissimi hurled from one enthusiastic patron, Melbourne Opera’s second instalment of Donizetti’s Three Queensmisses the potential it could reach.
Rating: three stars
Reviewer Paul Selar