Anna Bolena - English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, 13 March 2008
Who goes to the opera? English Touring Opera certainly attract a more varied audience than the Royal Opera House does, including the local couple sat next to me who normally visit Hackney Empire 'just for the panto' but thought they'd give opera a try. It's a superb venue for opera on this scale, with great acoustics and sightlines -- and they allow you to take drinks in, always a bonus.
Tonight's show, Donizetti's Anna Bolena, was the first of English Touring Opera's spring season. It was an ambitious choice. Although the story, a dolled-up liberty-taking version of Anne Boleyn's last days, is well-known, Donizetti's opera is not. I don't think it's been performed in London for years -- I've certainly never seen it. And being Donizetti, it requires awe-inspiringly hawt singing skillz to grapple with the gymnastic vocal lines.
And it got some fantastic vocal performances. The audience favourite was Luciano Botelho, playing Riccardo (Lord Percy), Anna's fictional lost love who returns from exile only to fall into King Henry's trap implicating the pair of them in false accusations of adultery. He threw himself into the part with a winning verve, pinging off multiple top notes with JDF-style ease in his appealing light, lamby tones. He could be forgiven for tiring a little at the end after such a spectacular display.
In some ways the most strongly drawn relationship in the production was the one between Riccardo and his best mate (also Anne's brother) Rochefort, played to great effect by the gritty bass baritone Jonathan Pugsley.
Julie Unwin rose to the daunting challenge of the title role with a golden tone and terrific technique. She concentrated hard on the nailing the vocal acrobatics, which may have inhibited her acting a bit, but ensured she was pretty much spot on throughout. No doubt she will loosen up as the tour progresses. Her final mad scene was much less cautiously played, convincing without going over the top.
Julia Riley shone just as brightly as Jane Seymour, here an unwitting pawn in Anne's downfall. Her singing was lustrous, and her sheer spunk energised every scene she was in, a great advantage in this largely static production.
ETO productions don't run to large budgets or complicated sets, but the two-level scaffold framework with its sliding panels of tapestry-like screens was enough to evoke something of a Tudor atmosphere while providing essential places for conspirators to lurk and plot.
The lush velvet costumes provided further period flavour, though a golden codpiece opportunity was overlooked in favour of kitting all the men out in puffy hose. And there were plenty of heaving bosoms for the ladies -- uncoincidentally just like Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson in The Other Boleyn Girl posters currently plastered all over London.
If there were a couple of elements of the production I didn't quite follow - mainly the addition of the (non-singing) Mary Tudor and Cranmer, this reflects my lack of historical knowledge as much as anything else.