Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Lyric Opera of Chicago does bel canto right in "Anna Bolena"

Photo: Robert Kusel
Courtesy of Lyric Opera
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In the 1830 tragedy "Anna Bolena" ("Anne Boleyn"), the second of Donizetti's four operas dealing with Tudor England and a classic of the bel canto operatic style, the composer and his librettist Felice Romani put the title character through hell—and aren't that much easier on the singer playing the role. She's on stage for most of the opera (which, in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production that opened this past weekend, runs three and one-half hours with intermission), finishing up with not one but two "mad" scenes and an execution scene that is almost as harrowing.

Not surprisingly, the role has become associated with some of the world's great singing actresses over the years, especially since the late Maria Callas caused such a sensation in a Lucino Visconti-directed production at La Scala in 1957. Other big names associated with the role are Renata Scotto and the great Joan Sutherland, who played the part in Lyric Opera's last presentation of "Anna Bolena" in 1985.

I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to say that Lyric's current Anna, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, should feel right at home in that pantheon, judging from her heroic performance on opening night. Expertly sung and superbly acted, her Anna moves easily through the wide dynamic and emotional range of this role. Like Callas, Ms. Radvanovsky is not afraid to sacrifice a little technical purity here and there if it enhances the drama. Which, on opening night, it always did.

Sondra Radvanovsky and
John Relyea
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Courtesy of Lyric Opera
Nor is hers the only impressive portrayal here. She's evenly matched by bass John Relyea's vocally powerful and dramatically on-point Henry VIII. Granted, the role has less depth than that of Anne—he's pretty much a rotter through and through—but Mr. Relyea makes the most of it, demonstrating flashes of the charisma that helps to explain how Jane Seymour (beautifully sung by mezzo Jamie Barton) could fall for him.

The "pants" role of Smeton—the young page whose infatuation with Anne is manipulated by Henry to undo them both—may only be a supporting part, but mezzo Kelley O'Connor brings a depth and humanity to it that makes it truly stand out. There was no scene stealing involved here, mind you; just solid technique and theatrical smarts. And an impeccable "Ah, parea che per l'incanto" in Act I.

Tenor Bryan Hymel is a passionate Lord Percy and bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba an appealing Lord Rochford. Tenor John Irvin rounds out the named roles and a chilling Lord Hervey, Henry's hatchet man.

Director Kevin Newbury is, perhaps, overly found of placing his principals in static poses and lighting them starkly from behind in primary colors, but on the whole the overall look of the production is striking. Neil Patel's set contributes substantially to that with its imposing Tudor ceiling from which walls and set pieces descend for the scene changes. The illusion of massive weight is convincing and reminds us of how these characters are, in some ways, imprisoned in the splendor of their surroundings. D. M. Wood's lighting design is dramatic, but there seemed to be technical issues with some of the instruments on opening night.

Sondra Radvanovsky and Kelley O'Connor
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Courtesy of Lyric Opera
Mr. Newbury has chorus master Michael Black's powerful and precise ensemble on stage more often than is called for in the libretto—sometimes merely to offer mute witness. The idea, according to his program notes, is "to bring the tension of private and public space to life... Are a kind and queen ever truly alone?" I thought it mostly worked, as did the conceit of adding Anne's toddler daughter, the future Elizabeth I, to some key scenes. Having the child quietly observe the cruelty around her adds an element of poignance.

Conductor Patrick Summers has an fascinating note in the program about the difficulty of performing Donizetti's music with modern wind instruments, which are louder and more resonant than those available back in 1830. The balance seemed fine to my ears, and the overall sound of the orchestra perfectly supported the singers throughout.

Lyric Opera of Chicago's "Anna Bolena" runs through January 16, 2015, in the company's opulent and comfortable theater in the Chicago Loop. It alternates with "Porgy and Bess" through December 20. For more information, visit the company web site

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