While the opera Anna Bolena provided composer Gaetano Donizetti instant international fame, his fame did not endure. His Bel Canto opera has seldom been performed since the 1830s after the Italian-originated vocal style fell out of fashion. As the world was becoming transfixed by Wagner’s complex tonal arrangements, it was considered too flamboyant.
Melbourne Opera have given themselves a tremendous challenge by presenting the third of Donizetti’s “Tudor” operas in English. Despite the subject matter being English (the story of Anne Boleyn) would the opera work given Donizetti wrote it in Italian? Some might suggest that English lacks the inherent musicality and tonal colouring of the romance languages. With the theatre packed for the opening show on 2 November, it was evident many people in Melbourne were keen to find out if the risk would pay off.
The overture began with frantic, almost bombastic pace. The score made a swift descent to deep, ominous tones; played with exacting speed before a sudden upswing in pitch and the music charged ahead with a sort of cantering exuberance. The tempo then eased back to light hearted and almost whimsical fluttering. It felt as though Donizetti was keen to showcase all his compositional tricks in the opening seven minutes. However, the overture was brilliantly executed without managing to sound off-kilter, manic or jarring.
The curtains rise and the opera opens in Greenwich Palace, 1536. After three years of marriage to Henry VIII, Anne is in a state of despair; she has been unable to produce a male heir and suspects that Henry has taken a mistress—a position she once occupied herself. Henry had divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne but their matrimony required a long string of religious-political manoeuvres to bring the Church of England into alignment with Henry’s desire to procure a male heir, he hoped, through Anne.
The opera sticks close to the historical record and most of the audience will know what fate awaits Anne before the final curtain call. In two acts the audience sees Henry manipulate the court in order to justify ending his marriage to Anne. Henry is sung by Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, who has both solid bearing of voice and frame, and makes for a convincing political strategist.
The role of Anne is sung by Australian soprano Elena Xanthoudakis. Her voice has incredible resonance and clarity even while striving to the lofty heights of her vocal range. She is equally matched by mezzo-soprano Sally Wilson who plays Jane Seymour. Their voices pair well whenever they share the stage and they manage to capture the complex circumstances their relationship – with Anne eventually learning that Jane, her trusted friend, is the King’s mistress.
Richard Divall’s translation is a cohesive, baroque musical arrangement. The performers manage to skilfully embellish the English lyrics whilst maintaining traditional Bel Canto flourishes, although there are a few occasions in which the phrasing appears to be a mouthful. Generally, however, the performers manage to smooth out the curt consonances and fierce phonics of the English language.
Throughout the production the stage is sparsely furnished and is often crowded with members of the court who serve as the chorus. They are all fitted out in elaborate costumes complete with layers of ruffles and flouncy farthingales on the women and voluminous doublets on the men. The luxurious materials are enriched by a golden stage lighting.
Besides looking the part, the chorus play their roles to perfection. When they are not singing they trade gossipy asides and roll their eyes. When they do sing the energy of the production lifts and their voices combine in a sea of sound. The vocal arrangements are complex and provide tremendous texture. In the second act, voices build to a heart quickening crescendo as Anne is commended and the curtains lower just as Xanthoudakis sweeps her long hair up into a bun—a simple yet arresting image to close the opera.
Anna Bolena goes for approximately 2 ½ hours with a twenty-minute interval. It is on at the Athenaeum Theatre 5 & 9 November, then Monash University on 12 November.