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To the Tower

Athenaeum Theatre
11/02/2016 -  & November 5, 9, 12, 2016
Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena
Elena Xanthoudakis (Anne Boleyn), Sally Wilson (Jane Seymour), Eddie Muliaumaseali’i (King Henry VIII), Boyd Owen (Henry Percy), Dimity Shepherd (Mark Smeaton), Phillip Calcagno (Lord Rochefort), Geoffrey Harris (Hervey)
Melbourne Opera Chorus, Raymond Lawrence (Chorus Master), Melbourne Opera Orchestra, Greg Hocking (Conductor)
Suzanne Chaundy (Director), Christina Logan-Bell (Designer), Lucy Birkinshaw (Lighting)

(© Courtesy Melbourne Opera)

That it has taken more than 180 years for this towering giant of the bel canto repertoire to receive a professional debut in Australia is amazing enough. But that it has taken the resources of the small, independently funded Melbourne Opera to mount that premiere is even more remarkable. Further, the company have already announced their intention to mount the third production of this Donizetti trilogy in 2017: another Australian debut to which this reviewer eagerly looks forward.

The creative team from 2015’s Maria Stuarda return with this new production. The emphasis is on the drama which unfolds between protagonists and to affect this, a stark, almost empty stage hints at the Tudor Rose, allowing room for the flowing gowns of sumptuous costuming. Suzanne Chaundy’s direction pushes the action to the front of the stage so we witness many private conversations that variously hound Anne’s final months as Queen and aide Henry’s predilection towards her downfall.

By any measure, this is a hugely challenging piece. Almost every singing role is massive; soloists have little time to recover from Donizetti’s persistent demands for soaring melody, inventive ornamentation and multiple returns following each set piece. The chorus too are on stage for great chunks of the score and the orchestra are required to underpin the whole with a complex and intricately orchestrated accompaniment. Full credit must go to a company brave enough to tackle such a work and even more so as they pulled it off with surety and aplomb.

This new version of the opera prepared and translated by esteemed Maestro Richard Divall, includes more than 140,000 corrections to the score and playing parts in the absence of a published modern edition. Gone are some of the wildly florid coloratura passages favoured by some interpreters of the roles revealing Donizetti’s lush orchestration and intricate vocal writing. Throughout, the impact focuses attention on the human drama of Anne, the sinister intrigue of Henry and the impetuous youthfulness of Smeaton, which means that the audience are riveted by tiny details of conversations, seeing the dreadful implications each contains.

Australian-Greek soprano Elena Xanthoudakis returns to MO in the second of Donizetti’s “Three Tudor Queens”. She is completely engrossing through her exquisite voice, accomplished acting and nuanced rendition of the character. Her voice is radiant; moving easily from a brilliant upper register, seamlessly though to her rich and powerful chest voice. As a stage presence, she is confident, rendering tiny gestures to match the agility of her singing. This portrayal of Anne is a real person caught between her overly ambitious struggle to get to the pinacle of power and paying the price for the tension and upheaval she created. Ms Xanthoudakis left nothing wanting in her performance. The massively demanding solos, followed by multiple returns in cabaletta or ensemble give the performer little recovery time. She delivered dazzling musical capability matched with touching emotional glimpses into the mind of her character. This was indeed a towering performance which drew wildly enthusiastic responses at each opportunity. Her interpretation of Anne is as multi-faceted as her previous performances as Mary Stuart; we can only look forward expectantly to her future appearances.

Melbourne mezzo-soprano Sally Wilson gave a superb Jane Seymour. Vivacious enough to capture the king she sought, she genuinely mourned the loss of her friendship with Anne. Her singing voice is a lustrous blend of powerful middle and lower registers; able to rise to meet the demands of the upper notes with agility and poise.

Dimity Shepherd’s Smeaton was full of youthful vitality. Her solo pieces, especially the Romanza in Act 1 showed self-assurance and easiness with both the character and the demands of the score.

The male singers were as skilled as their female counterparts. Eddie Muliaumaseali’i presented a stentorian Henry whose merest whim demanded immediate compliance. His marvellously rich basso brought life to this caricature of evil. Boyd Owen’s Percy gained confidence and brilliance as the performance progressed. His daring leaps into the stratosphere of the tenor range drawing great appreciation from the audience. Phillip Calcagno as Anne’s brother Lord Rochefort moved credibly between desperate sibling and political opportunist; his strong baritone lending weight and force to every ensemble.

The Melbourne Opera Chorus is a uniformly cohesive team whose sound is glorious. Chorus Master Raymond Lawrence alternates as conductor in this season and has done outstanding work preparing this wonderful group. This opera requires enormous variety from its chorus and this production has them on-stage for much of the action as witness to the unfolding drama. In every way, the chorus were a fine feature of the production.

Greg Hocking not only conducted the performance but doubled as Producer for the whole show. He is a greatly respected maestro whose reading of the score was volatile, powerful and sensitive. The Melbourne Opera Orchestra gave a very satisfying and rich performance which when matched with the clout and virtuosity of the chorus produced a great sound in both quality and proportion.

Melbourne Opera is an astonishingly capable troupe whose daring in staging this work is to be admired. Anna Bolena is a gorgeous addition to the Melbourne opera firmament.

Gregory Pritchard



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