Review: Anna Bolena, Hashtag Opera Co. ****

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An historical opera paired with a modern way of sourcing musicians and singers. The Hashtag Opera Company operates solely through social media, thus pushing the art form to expand within the ever-growing online community of audience members, musicians and singers, gathering those with at least one thing in common: a love of opera and music.

The four-year-old company has so far succeeded in pulling together extraordinarily talented casts from an online pool of artists (to which any singer can sign up), and its most recent concert performance of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Clapham, was no exception. Considered to be Donizetti’s finest bel canto opera, Anna Bolena is a retelling of the final days of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn. And while the opera’s doomed Queen has captured the imagination of many artists and writers, it is this Italian composer’s delicate bel canto touch which truly extracts the story’s sense of impending dread and sorrow. Emotion permeates the score, which twists and turns to reflect the characters’ experiences and changing emotional states. Above all, it is the human dimensions behind the historical tale that are explored so effectively in this opera.

I found it difficult to not care deeply for soprano Rochelle Hart’s portrayal of the ill-fated Queen, particularly in the concluding scene of the opera. As Anna Bolena awaits her terrible fate, she declines into madness and hurtles through a series of emotions, from terror to deluded calm. Hart carried this emotionally and technically demanding title role with dramatic sensitivity. The thrilling power of her upper register, which soared above the orchestra, noticeably contrasted with a subtle sweetness of tone in more tender passages.

Anna-Louise Costello’s portrayal of Marc Smeton was especially charming and expressive, while mezzo-soprano Heather Lupton’s voice complimented Hart’s wonderfully in the duet of Anna Bolena and Giovanna Seymour. John Upperton’s portrayal of Riccardo Percy, the Queen’s former lover, was striking and beautifully phrased with a smooth, melting tone, capturing my attention from the very start of his aria ‘Vivi tu’. This contrasted perfectly with a somewhat darker voice from Rory Mulchrone who played the hostile Enrico (Henry) VIII. In fact, musically speaking, all the singers were engaging and sensitive. The physical characterisation, however, was less consistent; the cast’s expressions and movement did not always match the impression created musically. Nevertheless, this was a concert performance, so I sat back and enjoyed the delightful music.

Under the baton of conductor Frederick Platt, we were met with the impressive sound of an orchestra that supported the singers with energy and enthusiasm. With limited rehearsal time (the players only come together a few days before the show), they performed together admirably and attentively. Despite being a little rough around the edges, with occasional stumbles and a tentativeness in the more exposed sections, their strength was clearly in numbers, displayed through their impressive, mostly well-balanced sound in the orchestral tuttis.

With such enthusiasm came occasional moments where the orchestra overpowered the singers, which may be in part due to the acoustics of the Church, and at in some registers the chorus was too camouflaged with the orchestra. But as a whole, the chorus created a well-blended sound and certainly provided the atmosphere to set the scenes, especially in the sadness expressed by the women’s chorus towards the end of Act II before Anna is taken to be executed.

But the cheers from the audience spoke volumes about the success of this imaginatively-put-together concert. It was a delight to see the enthusiasm and enjoyment expressed by both the audience and the performers. Bravo!

By Clare Elton

For more information about Hashtag Opera’s upcoming performances, click here to visit the website.