For the second of their “Tudor Trilogy” of Donizetti operas Melbourne Opera has chalked up a major success with Anna Bolena. Such are the demands placed on the principal singers, it is small wonder it has taken so long to be performed by a professional Australian company. In particular, much rests on the quality of the leading lady.
Elena Xanthoudakis had already established herself as a gifted exponent of bel canto repertoire last year when singing the eponymous role of Maria Stuarda. Her outstanding performance indicated that she would have the resources to do justice to the even more taxing role of Henry VIII’s ill-fated consort. In an opera lasting around 3 ½ hours, the soprano needs great reserves of stamina vocally and emotionally. The only other time I have seen Anna Bolena on stage was in Munich in 1997 with Edita Gruberovà in the title role. To have one of the greatest coloratura sopranos of her time at the height of her powers as a point of reference might seem unfair, but Xanthoudakis proved to be a continuous delight.
Physically, she could not have been more appropriate. Helen might have launched a thousand ships but Henry’s infatuation with Anne changed the course of a more modern history that continues to have an impact on our lives. Also totally convincing as an actress, Xanthoudakis invested every action and word with meaning. Even when self-consciously theatrical her movement was consistent with the courtly persona that Anne inhabited. Emotionally engaged and engaging, she was the sympathetic figure created by Donizetti and his librettist, Felice Romani. Vocally, Xanthoudakis went from strength to strength, negotiating the coloratura passages with admirable agility and warm, well-projected beauty of tone. Even throughout the range and with emotionally coloured dark chest notes, her voice rode the ensembles with ease and her secure top notes soared. Her singing of the “Home Sweet Home” variation in the final scene when Anne becomes half demented in the face of death was particularly poignant.
Before the curtain was raised, however, producer and conductor Greg Hocking stepped forward to make a couple of announcements. One was to acknowledge the contributions of Richard Divall, who had conducted MO’s Maria Stuarda and prepared the English translation and performing edition of this Anna Bolena. Many of those attending the Herald Sun Aria the previous week might have been shocked to see Maestro Divall come onto the stage in a wheelchair rather than striding on as usual, baton in hand. A diminished figure, his smile and wave of greeting to the audience immediately transformed him into the enthusiastic person who has given so generously of himself to support singers and the musical life of Australia, particularly Melbourne’s. He was in the audience and, despite health issues, still very much a valuable and cherished part of proceedings.
The other major announcement concerned the replacement of an ailing Sally-Anne Russell by Sally Wilson in the role of Anne’s rival, Jane Seymour. Wilson was already scheduled for the November 12 performance at Monash, so it was not quite the emergency situation that it might have been. Hopefully, Russell will be well enough to sing on some or all of the coming performances. As it was, Sally Wilson gave a persuasive performance as the guilt-ridden Seymour. An effective foil to Xanthoudakis’ Anna, her strong mezzo-soprano encompassed the wide range capably with full top notes and good flexibility.
Boyd Owen also impressed as Henry Percy, Anne’s “real” husband and true love. This is another extremely demanding role: long, with a high tessitura and plenty of florid passages. After some initial tightness on the top notes, Owen warmed to his role with some terrific singing. His is an exceptional talent, and one that, hopefully, we will hear frequently in future Melbourne performances.
As Henry VIII, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i was his usual imposing figure and thus well suited to the role. Vocally, it was also a good fit with the whole range within easy reach. This is a voice that goes from strength to strength as it gains in power and focus. It is also an instrument that seems incapable of producing anything but beautiful sounds. Luxurious in tonal depth, it rides the vocal line with well-oiled ease. He provided a rich underpinning for some of the powerful end-of-scene ensembles.
There was not one weak link in this cast. Dimity Shepherd made an ardent Mark Smeaton, Anne’s admirer and the misguided cause of her undoing, her mezzo-soprano vibrant and suitably powerful in the lower reaches. Phillip Calcagno was a musically and vocally secure dynamic presence as Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort.
Greg Hocking drew lively and mostly assured playing from the orchestra throughout the evening. In general, the MO Chorus was better than ever. Although the voices for the opening men’s chorus could have been better blended, most of the chorus work was very fine indeed. The women’s chorus in Act 2 was exceptionally well blended and subtle in musical expressiveness – an absolute credit to Raymond Lawrence’s training.
Director Suzanne Chaundy made uncommonly inspired use of the chorus. Using formal, stylised placement that reflected rigid court etiquette, they acted as commentators on the action as well as jury. The main exception was the court lady attending Anne in the last scene. Her name was not listed on the program, but her reactions added a great deal to the pathos of Anne’s plight before she bared her neck for the blade.
Enhanced by Lucy Birkinshaw’s atmospheric lighting, Christina Logan-Bell’s simple, spacious set design, featuring a Tudor rose floor cloth and flower pattern panels based on the ceiling of The Great Watching Chamber at Hampton Court, was a perfect framework for the gorgeously garbed human action.
Well deserving of its enthusiastic opening night ovation, this production of Anna Bolena is a must for all devotees of bel canto and opera lovers in general. Tudor tragics lamenting last week’s concluding episode of Wolf Hall would also be well advised to rush along to the Athenaeum for another potent fix of Tudor melodrama starring the first beheaded Queen of England. We will all have to wait patiently (or impatiently) until next year for the third and final operatic dose of what we love when Melbourne Opera presents Roberto Devereux.
Heather Leviston reviewed Melbourne Opera’s performance at the Athenaeum Theatre on November 2, 2016.
Check Classic Melbourne’s calendar for other dates – and a change of venue for the final performance.