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Photograph by Prudence Upton

Anna Bolena

Opera Australia presents, ANNA BOLENA, Music by Gaetano Donizetti. Libretto by Felice Romain, in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, July 2, 6, 9, 13, 17, 20, 23, and 26, 2019.

ANNA BOLENA, is an Italian opera written in 1830, by Gaetano Donizetti, using the court of Henry VIII and his forcing of divorce from his second wife Anne Boleyn and the courting of his third wife Jane Seymour as the spine of the narrative. There is very little historical nuance to this libretto by Felice Romain but a great deal of dramatic confabulation to engender as much drama as possible to allow the creation of great dramatic music from orchestra and singers. Solo, duet and other figurations of ensemble, backed by the presence and usage of a large chorus and orchestra, is employed to create what we now know as classically, the Grand Opera style: a bel canto feast for the ears that when ignited with the best of available talents can inflame a passionate emotional excitement in the theatre audience. Neither narrative (story) or character is the reason to go to a Grand Opera experience, it is the least important consideration to attend the performance (don’t go expecting a true history of Anne Boleyn), and is, basically, a framing device that is virtually displaced by the indulgent, glorious MUSIC makers – Composer, Orchestra and Singers.

ANNA BOLENA is an example of this experience, capped perhaps with his LUCIA DE LAMMERMOOR (1835), whilst in claque competition with other composers of the time, Vincenzo Bellini: LA SONNAMBULA (1831) or NORMA (1831); Giacomo Meyerbeer: ROBERT LE DIABLE (1831), LES HUGUENOTS (1836) (and much else – make your own list. It may include Gioachino Rossini’s IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA (1816), SEMIRAMIDE (1823) ). These works feeding the appetites of the great opera houses and their audiences of the time, have gone in and out of fashion as time passed which can partly be understood because of the ‘incredible’ musical demands of the composer and the physical scale of the works: talent and budget considerations. The recent revival period for the bel canto style happened in the ’50’s and 60’s when singers such as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo appeared with musical instruments of breathtaking presence and technical dexterity that transported the audiences into ecstatic states of musical heaven.

Opera Australia’s decision to present ANNA BOLENA, is following a recent international ‘trend’ to resurrect this opera, not often presented. The OA’s audiences should have jumped with excitement at the opportunity to hear and see this work – an invitation to journey back to the ‘grand old opry’ days. Bombastic, perhaps, but when the ingredients are ‘talented’, a thrilling bel canto ‘noise’ indulgence can be made, and that can make life worth living through.

The work requires solo voices of some flexible talent and formidable technique, especially so when the composer decides to have the principal performers ‘face front and stand to deliver’ across the width of the proscenium arch, the characters’ inner monologue expressed in musical harmonic competition, backed by a large murmuring chorus and orchestra. The Opera Australia, BOLENA company, does astoundingly well, under the control of Conductor, Renato Palumbo, led on-stage by the coloratura soprano of Ermonela Jaho (Anna Boleyn), surrounded by the mellow maturity of the mezzo, Carmen Topciu (Jane Seymour), and rich baritone, Leonardo Cortellazzi (Lord Percy), glorious soprano Anna Dowsley (in the trouser role of Mark Smeaton) and the support of bass, Teddy Tahu Rhodes (King Henry VIII), however uncomfortable he sounded.

This was especially so in the first act of the performance I saw on the opening night. Each sequence throughout the first act, thrillingly peaking musically only to be ‘topped’ with the next grand-standing musical challenge that followed. One was whipped into a breathtaking aural awe at the whole company’s disciplined confidence in delivering Donizetti’s ‘goods’ – an ecstatic high, in the interval.

Unfortunately, the second act did not have the same affect. Whether it is a weakness in the actual musical structure of the work, or the lack of time for the company to prepare this part of the work in rehearsal with the necessary on-stage rigour, to give the same practised balance of accomplishment as act one – after all it is nearly three hours and a bit of music, quite a demand – I have not the sufficient knowledge to analyse. But he second act was a considerable disappointment. It would be interesting to attend later performances to see what ‘doing-time’ may have settled, cemented. Has the second act improved in its affect?

The work is Directed by David Livermore in a fairly stodgy manner with a ‘modernising’ (post-modern) concept (such as the opera Company’s dancers’ presence, in a set of visually puzzling post-modern costume choices, during the overture, and in many other vital moments of dramatic import during the story telling throughout the night), with clumsy staging of singers’ positions about the space that suggested, in my growing frustrated state-of-mind, a kind of ill considered amateur vision of the Grand Opera style, it being continuously hampered by a ridiculous indulgence in permitting melodramatic emotional expression in gesture (especially from Ms Jaho, sitting legs wide in the dramatic confrontation with Jane Seymour on the revolve steps like some exasperated tavern shrew, or latterly, bent backwards like a dying swan, as the reality of Anna’s execution approached) that could not often be accepted as a serious solution for a contemporary audience to believe in as a sensible offer. Often, it was risible. Objective laughter instead of subjective immersion. Add the catastrophe of the mis-matched post-modern concept for the costuming, by Mariana Fracasso and they created an intellectual distraction as we tried to understand them instead as a clarifying aid to interpret the action of the play.

Then, Mr Livermore was burdened with a Digital design demand, made by the philosophy of contemporary opera staging envisioned by the Artistic Director of the Opera Australia Company, Lyndon Terracini, that not only has ingenious ‘flying’ panels of LSD – oops, sorry I meant to write LED, not LSD – screens being continually positioned and re-positioned during the physical action and musical singing of the performers, and that are covered in imagery that is both still and/or animated continuously throughout the night, Designed by Set Designer, Gio Forma, who was served in visual content supplied by D -Wok, to support (compete?!) with the primary interest of the night, the singing and dramatic characterisation of the performers.

The visual offers of this ANNA BOLENA were often being a distraction from the principal reason to spend one’s money and time in the Joan Sutherland theatre; to hear and see Donizetti’s ANNA BOLENA. The imagery was often visually repetitive in its presence so that it seemed to have no dramatic purpose for narrative or metaphoric symbolism for the action of the performance. For instance, the panels with digitalised animated beetles crawling up-and-down the huge screens, when first appearing were so thrusting in their visual presence that one attempted to ‘define’ their meaning in matching it to the action of the narrative on the stage, embodied in the performers – one, either could, or could not. But can you imagine the irritation when the same imagery came back in the opera storytelling later in the evening and have it hang about for an extensive time with no direct harmony to what had happened before, when they demanded our attention, or, to now, to the events of the play. One could only conclude they had re-appeared merely as decorative background and were so because the budget for the digital design had all been consumed and no other imagery could be afforded. One became mesmerised by the repetitive distraction of the computer-generated-trails of the beetles. Was this why the second act was moribund in its effect? Whatever, the cutting edge benefits of the flying buttresses of the LSD  – oops, I meant to write LED not LSD – screens on their tracks illuminated by a very limited collection of images – still or animated – soon exhausted their acceptable usefulness in creating a rewarding creative experience in the theatre for the storytelling. It must be said that when the music and the musicians were free and clear from the visual clutter of repetitive imagery it worked best.

Simple choices to focus on the raison d’etre of the revival of this opera ought to have being employed. The artistic explorations using the latest design fad ought to be more astute and economical in their selection by the Director and the Designers. Time to solve this is an expensive part of the budget dispersal I imagine – but if you are going to do it, then do it well and ensure that you have the budget to do it well, all of the night. For this Digital regime coming from the Direction of Mr Terracini for AIDA, BUTTERFLY, and WHITELY, in this year’s new production work, signals, in the result which we so far have endured, needs much more care, time, money and ART. As it is, it is an obvious blight to the full success of the production and the experience..

ANNA BOLENA, then, is a mixed ‘bag’ of excitement and irritation. It was great, though, to be able to attend an old fashioned night at the Grand Old Opera.

1 replies to “Anna Bolena”

  1. Oh dear, Kevin. Just read your latest blog – haven't seen the opera, but have seen the stunningly written, directed and designed Things I Know to Be True, and the over-written, over-directed Counting and Cracking, where the token Aboriginal figure has a bit of a talk over the fence about nothing, which I believe was much edited and re-written during the season. I think it's great that a first-writer gets produced, an obvious talent, just such a pity it's not given proper time and talent to develop properly. It's good to disagree, of course, and I know I'll have the majority against me. I hope to see you again soon! Much respect, May-Brit

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