The jumbotrons are back. After Opera Australia gave Aida a digital makeover last year, with dazzling impact, the dance of the giant tellys returns to the Joan Sutherland Theatre to illuminate another bel canto work.
The result is not as easy a fit. But thoughtful directorial moments and thrilling singing elevate a dusty piece of opera.
Anna Bolena, Gaetano Donizetti’s mid-career history play, is no Aida. Less grand parades with a menagerie of marchers, more whispered palace intrigue and romantic entanglements. But Italian innovator Davide Livermore applies a similar dreamy aesthetic, employing the digital stylings of Italian studio Giò Forma and design firm D-Wok to conjure place – and mood – with the gracefully moving screens.
Not all the imagery is as graceful, however. In Aida the inexorable gaudiness suited an opera traditionally over the top; in Bolena the visual cues – a magnificent bird taking flight as a character’s heart flutters; beetles scurrying ghoulishly up the palace walls as the court descends into chaos – can come off a little cheesy. John Rayment impressively lights the dynamic space.
What’s more, Bolena as an opera is much harder work on the audience. It can feel interminable for long stretches, under the baton of unflagging Renato Palumbo, at nearly three and a half hours with just a single interval. The composers Donizetti would later inspire – Giuseppe Verdi in particular – would learn a relative economy in storytelling that even Donizetti’s best work (L’elisir d’amore, Don Pasquale, Lucia di Lammermoor) lacks.
Which is not to discourage Opera Australia in presenting work on the fringes of the canon, only to suggest an editor might be required – a supposedly sacrilegious act that surely must be on the table if companies are serious about shaping opera into a modern form of art. Spare Anne’s head and slice the show instead.
Donizetti’s Tudor obsession would produce four operas on its queens, including two after Bolena – Maria Stuarda (Mary, Queen of Scots) and Roberto Devereux (a player in Elizabeth I’s court). Opera Australia is delivering the final three as a trilogy over as many years, each helmed by Livermore. The two to come are mercifully tighter shows. It’s a bold and worthy endeavour from OA, tracing the history of an empire and a composer so important to the history of opera.
No amount of digital wizardry can upstage a strong cast, particularly Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho in the title role. She dazzled as Violetta in OA’s La traviata in 2017 and returns here even stronger and more assured. The vivid colour and masterly control in her voice, up and down the register, is extraordinary, and dramatically she makes believable choices as the spurned queen walking backwards onto the chopping block. Her final aria, Al dolce guidami, rivals the mad scene of Lammermoor for its emotional intensity and Jaho crafts it beautifully.
As the other woman, Jane Seymour, Romanian mezzo Carmen Topciu makes her Australian debut. Her acting is less authentic than Jaho’s, though it’s certainly an impressive vocal performance. The act two confrontation with Anne, the smartest scene staged by Livermore on the revolve, sees Topciu matching Jaho with scintillating singing.
The familiar rumble of Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ bass is employed effectively as the capricious King Henry VIII, as is the barrel chest with shirt unbuttoned to the navel as he first seduces Jane. We’ve seen this before from Rhodes – as Mozart’s lothario in Don Giovanni – and he does it devilishly well.
There are nice turns from Leonardo Cortellazzi as Riccardo Percy, Richard Anderson as Anne’s brother George, John Longmuir as Henry’s scheming official Harvey and particularly Anna Dowsley in the tricky contralto role of court musician Smeaton.
Long live the queens. Though perhaps not quite this long.
Anna Bolena plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until July 26
Photo of Anna Dowsley and Teddy Tahu Rhodes by Prudence Upton