Opera review: 'Anna Bolena'

12.07.14
Patrick Summers
Chicago Tribune

By John Von Rhein 

Devotees of early Romantic Italian opera must have thought they had died and gone to bel canto heaven last week, when two masterpieces of that genre, neither of them overly familiar, opened in downtown Chicago within three days of each other.

If Gaetano Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" at Lyric Opera isn't quite in the same exalted league as the Teatro Regio Torino's Rossini "William Tell," comparisons are largely irrelevant since the "Tell," from Turin, Italy, was only a concert version, whereas Lyric's "Bolena" is not only a full production but a new production.

"Anna Bolena's" return to the Lyric repertory Saturday night at the Civic Opera House offered vocal thrills of its own, many of them supplied by Sondra Radvanovsky. Her high notes blazing, the Berwyn-born soprano tore into the long and diabolically difficult title role of the embattled Anne Boleyn, who goes to the block after Henry VIII spurns his devoted consort for her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.

The visceral quality of Radvanovsky's vocally compelling and dramatically affecting performance was just the ticket to send sparks flying in the coloratura stratosphere. A good thing, too, in an Italianized Tudor soap opera that plays hob with history and requires the doomed heroine to languish in anxiety and confusion before finally getting to revel in virtuoso display in the great mad scene that precedes her execution. (Hint: Don't you dare leave early.)

Even so, Radvanovsky is but one reason to catch this show. Lyric has cast the other roles from strength as well, surrounding its A-list singing actors with fine work from the orchestra and chorus under conductor Patrick Summers, and a handsome production by first-time Lyric director Kevin Newbury.

Musically speaking, "Anna Bolena" is the strongest of Donizetti's three "Tudor queen" operas, the one with the most consistently inspired music and fully realized characters. Yet, even with cuts, the bel canto tragedy is a long sing, lasting some 3-1/2 hours, with a single intermission separating the two acts.

Fortunately, Radvanovsky and her colleagues — which include the admirable mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Jane Seymour and tenor Bryan Hymel in his splendid Lyric debut as Anne's first love, Lord Richard Percy — have the technique and vocal reserves needed to keep the long bel canto lines flowing gracefully in an opera that's essentially a series of increasingly tense confrontations.

Newbury and his artistic team — Neil Patel (sets), Jessica Jahn (costumes) and D.M. Wood (lighting), all making company debuts — created this co-production for Lyric and Minnesota Opera, where it was first seen in 2012 as the capstone of the Donizetti trilogy that included "Maria Stuarda" and "Roberto Devereux."

The courtly intrigues and suspicions that send Anne to the scaffold are symbolized by a large, ever-present chorus of eavesdroppers and spies, arrayed beneath a huge, coffered ceiling. Moving, blocklike castle walls trap Anne in increasingly claustrophobic spaces. A similarly mobile throne doubles as the bedchambers of Boleyn and Seymour. The design scheme mixes period realism and modern abstraction, while Jahn's costumes adhere to Tudor fashion: dark leather doublets and jerkins, bejeweled crowns, flared sleeves, an ermine mantle for the king.

One of Newbury's additions to Felice Romani's libretto is to introduce a mute child, Anne's daughter, who is, of course, destined to become Queen Elizabeth I. The final scene, in which the child runs onstage to witness her mother's execution, may be rubbish as history but it's spot-on as theater. One trusts the odd lighting miscues evident on Saturday will be corrected by later performances.

Radvanovsky deployed her big, dark, vibrant sound, with its precise coloratura and close attention to text, to potent effect. She brought a great deal of chest voice up into her top register, which enabled her to ignite the high Cs and Ds like Roman candles. The notes weren't pretty, but they set the stage afire.

Tall and regal in bearing, Radvanovsky, moreover, paced herself so cannily as to have plenty of voice left for the opera's final 20 minutes, which belonged entirely to Anne as she awaited death in the tower. The mad scene and the queen's defiant farewell touched off a storm of applause, rightly so. One eagerly awaits the singer's Norma in the Bellini opera a couple of Lyric seasons hence.

The role of the guilt-ridden Jane Seymour offered Barton a splendid opportunity to display her plush, voluminous voice and dulcet bel canto phrasing. She and Radvanovsky earned one of the evening's heartiest ovations for their Act 2 duet.

Once warmed after a somewhat tight-sounding start, Hymel's voice stood revealed as a tenor of impressively heroic strength, sweetness and style, easily inhabiting the high tessitura. Let's have Hymel back. ("William Tell," anyone?)

Bass John Relyea used his truly menacing, black-toned basso to dominate his scenes as the cruel and arrogant Henry.

Mezzo Kelley O'Connor looked properly androgynous as the page Smeton and sang with agility; too bad the part lies too low for her. Ryan Opera Center members Richard Ollarsaba, bass-baritone, and John Irvin, tenor, were fully in the picture as Lord Rochford, Anna's calculating brother; and Lord Hervey, Henry's smarmy henchman.

Summers, who succeeded Anthony Freud as chief administrator of Houston Grand Opera when Freud took over as general director at Lyric, led a pliant and stylish account of the score. Certain sections, such as the big ensemble finale of Act I, he pushed very hard, but he kept stage and pit in synch. The orchestra generally played well for him, save for faltering horns at the outset of the second act.

The chorus, prepared by Michael Black, added yet another success to its many accomplishments in this extremely busy opera season.