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Anna Bolena is the central panel of Melbourne Opera's noble enterprise of staging Donizetti's regal triptych, which began last year with Maria Stuarda and concludes in 2017 with Roberto Devereux.
Certainly, this performance boasted a most distinguished Anna in soprano Elena Xanthoudakis, whose steely voice sliced through the orchestra like a freshly sharpened axe blade. The role is long and cruel, but Xanthoudakis tackled it fearlessly, but also, particularly in the final act, with grace and humility.
Anna's rival in love, Jane Seymour, was well sung by Sally Wilson, substituting for Sally-Anne Russell. Dimity Shepherd, always a fine artist, was a first-rate Mark Smeaton, Anna's lovestruck page.
Of the men, bass Eddie Muliaumaseali'i, capacious of voice and frame, was a stentorian Henry VIII, but often bellowed rather than sang; likewise, tenor Boyd Owen, as the falsely accused Henry Percy, tended to put volume before lyricism. Baritone Phillip Calcagno was nobler as Anna's brother, Lord Rochefort.
I wish I could say Anna Bolena was a crowning success. Alas, for the most part, the performance, conducted by Greg Hocking, was scrappy and boisterous: a combination that didn't do much to preserve Donizetti's exacting and exciting dramatic cantabile lines. Even so, Richard Divall's new performing edition was interesting to hear, as was his English translation. It's not often you hear a couplet ending in "smitten" and "Britain".
Suzanne Chaundy, who is directing the Tudor trilogy, utilises the same simplistic approach, with piecemeal sets by Christina Logan-Bell and lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw. But it was all a bit of a squeeze, and entrances and exits were more a confused flurry of doublets and hose and farthingales. Considering the confines of the Athenaeum stage, the setting could be described as Crampton Court.
The production was more focused in the opera's great confrontational scenes, of which there were many. But even then, sometimes the action unintentionally, I'm sure, veered away from the "grand tragic" into the realm of farce. Anna Bolena is not a comedy.
Reviewer: Michael Shmith