After triumphing as Violetta in her Opera Australia debut in 2017, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho has once again proved her star quality as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. A tremendously challenging role, requiring both vocal display and control, its most famous proponents include Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills and that brilliant cult diva, Leyla Gencer. While Jaho isn’t a born bel cantista like those sopranos, more at home in the lirico-spinto repertoire, her artistry and dramatic conviction make her portrayal near as complete as could be. And with the prospect of her taking on the remaining Tudor Queens for OA in subsequent years, who can help but be excited given the strength of her performance here?

Ermonela Jaho. All photos © Prudence Upton

It’s a psychologically penetrating assumption of the unhappy queen, full of telling details that capture an Anna all too aware of her coming demise. Like Ileana Cotrubas before her, Jaho has that magical quality of a tear in the voice, lending easy pathos to Donizetti’s most affecting passages. While she lacks the necessary heft in the middle voice for important moments like Giudici, ad Anna and Coppia iniqua – she sounds stretched to her limits at points – Jaho more than makes up for it with a vocal portrayal of considerable beauty and feeling. Most impressive in the composer’s cantabile sections, her light but penetrating voice has a sweetness of timbre that also allows for spacious phrasing and vivid delivery of recitative. Her final act cavatina Al dolce guidami – Donizetti unabashedly inspired by Henry Bishop’s Home, Sweet Home – is spellbinding, demonstrating expansive breath, shapely line and radiance of tone. It’s without question that Anna Bolena must now count amongst Jaho’s masterful interpretations of Violetta, Butterfly and Suor Angelica.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Carmen Topciu

Happily, she’s surrounded by a strong cast, with Carmen Topciu’s Giovanna Seymour especially memorable. An involving stage presence, her rich, muscular mezzo packs a mighty punch as Anna’s conscience-stricken rival, with access to a full and easy top. Her extended Act Two duet with Jaho is rightfully one of the evening’s highlights, among one of the composer’s most imaginative passages – there’s simply no Bolena without it. Both pull out all the stops, their contrasting timbres especially appropriate for this moment of conflict and eventual uneasy reconciliation. Her final act aria, Per questa fiamma indomita, is another highpoint, Topciu lavishing on it generous tone and depth of feeling. Here’s hoping she returns to the company.

Jaho and Leonardo Cortellazzi

Though you sense the role lies too low for him at times, Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ Enrico is for the most part effectively characterised and sung. Quick to anger, he plays off both Jaho and Topciu well, by turns weak and venal – Rhodes shows us a man beholden to his desires, weighed down with a boy’s petulance. In the punishingly high-lying role of Anna’s inept lover Henry Percy, Italian tenor Leonardo Cortellazzi sings with attractive thrust and incisive diction, his Vivi tu both stylish and expressive. Anna Dowsley is in plummy, ardent voice as the unfortunate page Smeton, while Richard Anderson and John Longmuir lend gravitas to their brief appearances as George Boleyn and Hervey respectively.

The Opera Australia Orchestra under Renato Palumbo offer up transparent and pointed playing, lightly textured but with an appropriate tragic weight. Palumbo shapes the music persuasively and with style, while the Opera Australia Chorus are as committed and cohesive as ever.

Unfortunately, the dramatic values don’t match up with the musical ones. It’s not a production that provides much insight into the work or characters, though director Davide Livermore’s use of the much talked-about LED screens is better integrated than in his Aida last year. They still mostly function as inoffensive backdrops however, though the preponderance of animal motifs and heraldic imagery becomes tiring, as is the overuse of a bed prop.

More troubling is his direction and blocking of singers. Like in Aida, there’s too much reliance on stock operatic gestures, something that his performers make work only through sheer conviction – Rhodes in particular is saddled with one too many Holbein-esque poses. What’s more, certain visual flourishes become distracting and eventual impediments to the unfolding of the drama. The aforementioned Act Two confrontation is meant to be painfully intimate, but Livermore insists on using a revolve and scaffold to emphasise Anna and Giovanna’s shifting fortunes, enforcing distance where there should be an uncomfortable closeness. He also situates Jaho at the rear of the stage, mostly in darkness, when she condemns her as yet unknown rival to a life of misery – his soprano is thus obscured from sight at a crucial moment, her delivery less audible at such a remove. Livermore’s use of a troupe of dancers, who occasionally act as stand ins for the queen, also loses steam before too long, and the flashy reveal of Anna’s red gown of martyrdom at her execution is just overegging it.

Thankfully, the strength of the cast overrides the shortcomings of the production, and there’s simply no excuse for missing Jaho’s marvellous Bolena. A splendid night of full-throated singing.

Opera Australia’s Anna Bolena is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre until July 26 


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