A Donizetti opera, set in Britain, where the heroine suffers under the cruelty of men to such an extent that she is driven mad: were this to occur on Jeopardy!, anyone who ventured to buzz in would be overwhelmingly likely to identify it as the answer to the question ‘What is Lucia di Lammermoor?’ However, it is also a summary description of Anna Bolena, written five years earlier in 1830.

Ermonela Jaho (Anna Bolena) and Leonardo Cortellazzi (Percy) © Prudence Upton
Ermonela Jaho (Anna Bolena) and Leonardo Cortellazzi (Percy)
© Prudence Upton

Part of what they share is also what separates them. Famously, Lucia’s insanity finds voice in a spectacular 25-minute orgy of vocal virtuosity, while Anna’s mad scene is much less extrovert and theatrical, and consequently less exciting. Nonetheless, the opera offers a grateful role to a soprano with good bel canto coloratura, as well as plenty of rewards for the other singers.

This new production saw the return of director Davide Livermore and the team which was behind Opera Australia’s 2018 Aida, the first to use the new digital screens. By comparison with the somewhat naïve Egyptian symbolism deployed last year, the imagery created by set designer Giò Forma and D-Wok (the latter credited for digital content) was on the whole more restrained: fractured Gothic designs, insects in amber, crawling beetles and the like.

But not everything was so abstract. The location of the opera was identified by the projection of the various London landmarks during the opening Sinfonia, with the changing time-lapse images of the construction of London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral serving to establish a continuum between past and present. Other images invited interpretation: the opening shot of the phallic skyscraper known as the Gherkin might have been a nod to Henry’s priapic nature, the main plot motivator. Later, the sight of a bird beating its wings in slow-motion, caught in a circle of light, was easily identifiable with the heroine’s plight.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Enrico) and Carmen Topciu (Giovanna) © Prudence Upton
Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Enrico) and Carmen Topciu (Giovanna)
© Prudence Upton

Lighting director John Rayment created some startling effects, especially the blinding flash in the final scene as Anna’s black outer garment was stripped away, leaving her in red. Less happily, at various times singers were left singing in the shadows without spotlights, whether by error or design. The costumes by Mariana Fracasso referenced Tudor designs crossed with modern elements, with the latter preponderating in Henry VIII’s camp rock star get-up.

As Anna Bolena, Ermonela Jaho was sensitive and dignified, but showed herself capable of bursts of strong emotion. Her performance was less about acrobatics than lyrical singing, with many passages where she really caressed the notes. “Al dolce guidami”, the cantabile section of her mad scene, was a treat, the more impressive as much of this was delivered in a supine position.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes brought his signature brand of glowering charm to the role of the predatory Henry. His forcefulness led to some approximations in pitch, but he conveyed the mixture of testosterone-fuelled menace and magnetism that made the reactions of the rest of the characters believable.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Enrico) and Carmen Topciu (Giovanna) © Prudence Upton
Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Enrico) and Carmen Topciu (Giovanna)
© Prudence Upton

The star of the night was Carmen Topciu as Jane Seymour. Her rich mezzo tones were complemented by strong characterisation as she is torn between her love/lust for Henry, her ambition and her guilt at betraying her Queen. She more than held her own vocally and dramatically in the duets with Jaho and Rhodes.

Anna’s old love, Lord Percy, was played by tenor Leonardo Cortellazzi. His voice had a beautiful warm quality to it in the middle register, although early on it sounded a little pinched at the top. His sidekick, Anna’s brother Lord Rochfort, was played by the hirsute Richard Anderson, ever a reliable bass presence.

Not even the presence of an outsize codpiece could conceal Anna Dowsley’s essential femininity, but vocally there was everything to admire in her smooth and expressive mezzo delivery as the page Smeton. John Longmuir was good as the villainous Sir Hervey, and the OA chorus were their stalwart selves.

By contrast with their stellar playing in Butterfly a few night’s earlier, the orchestra under Renato Palumbo sounded much less engaged. Admittedly the scores are hardly commensurate, and keeping concentration through the many vamps Donizetti requires is a challenge, but there were a few fluffs and moments of less than perfect coordination.

Additions to the usual on-stage characters included dancers who intermittently represented elements of the action (the diegetic harp playing during Smeton’s aria, the horses in the hunt). A little red-headed girl dressed as in Velasquez’s celebrated painting Las Meninas who mysteriously appeared at the end of the Sinfonia turned out to be Anna’s daughter. This is, of course, the future Queen Elizabeth, who is a character in the third of Donizetti's Tudor operas Roberto Devereux. OA’s publicity material offers the open hint that Anna Bolena is the first part of a planned trilogy: a solid start, with hopefully even better to come.


***11