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Review: Anna Bolena at the Sydney Opera House

By Hamish Stening

Anna Bolena, along with Madama Butterfly and Whitely, forms part of Opera Australia's digital season, an ambitious and risky endeavour where for each production fourteen 7 metre-high LED screens form a significant part of the set. I say risky because whilst the sky is the limit with LED screens, they very rarely live up to their potential, and often come across as more gimmicky than necessary. Well clearly not for Opera Australia.

Just as they were in Opera Australia's first foray into digital content with Aida in 2018 and as they were in the currently running Madama Butterfly, the screens in Anna Bolena are incredibly effective. They cast colour on stage and provide motion through animation in ways not possible with a traditional, physical set. Further, because each screen can move indepently throughout 3D space, the designers of this production (Davide Livermore, director; Giò Forma, set designer; John Rayment, lighting designer; D-Wok, Digital Content) have been able to beautifully and effectively set every scene, make the opera feel incredibly dynamic, and make the production a veritable feats for the eyes. The costumes (Mariana Fracasso) and physical set and prop elements too are gorgeous, but what about the actors' performances?

Well, there is no getting past that the opera suffers from often having too many people on stage, some choreography that doesn't quite land, distractingly unnatural background acting, and some awkward blocking, but these theatre faux pas are instantly forgiven as soon as the cast sing. The ensemble fill the famous Joan Sutherland Theatre with a full, rich, and perfectly blended sound, whilst  Anna Dowsley (Mark Smeaton), Richard Anderson (Lord Rochford), Leonardo Cortellazzi (Lord Percy), and Carmen Topciu (Jane Seymour)'s voices are precise and ring beautifully. Their acting too is notable as their characters' feelings and motivations are as clear as they are relatable despite a famously unhandy book.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes, as King Henry VII, is Teddy Tahu Rhodes (make of that what you will) and as always, Renato Palumbo and his orchestra sound fantastic. Ermonela Jaho as Anne Boleyn didn't quite work for me as she was perhaps too liberal with pitch and her acting felt inauthentic and heavy-handed. That being said, she undeniably grew into the role as the opera progressed, her top register is breathtaking, and she received a standing ovation from half of the audience so maybe don't listen to me.

Overall, this opera hits most of the right notes. It sounds brilliant, looks even better, and while some acting choices fall flat, I certainly appreciate the risks that Opera Australia are taking and truly believe that their bravery is paying off.

Photo Credit: Prudence Upton

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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