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Music Pages

Donizetti's Anna Bolena at Washington National Opera

28 September 2012, Washington, US

Sondra Radvanovsky (left) and Sonia Ganassi in WNO's 'Anna Bolena'
Sondra Radvanovsky (left) and Sonia Ganassi in WNO's 'Anna Bolena'(Photo: Scott Suchman)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn
Themes for director-conceived opera productions come in cycles.  We went through the Nazi themes, the pantomime-ending-during-the-overture-idea, and now it’s the play-within-a play conceit.

Last summer director Robert Lepage set Ades’ The Tempest on La Scala’s stage (Opera Now, October 2012), as did director Thaddeus Strassberger for his Nabucco at Washington National Opera (Opera Now, September 2012). In this new production, also at WNO, director Stephen Lawless has placed Anna Bolena on the stage of London’s Globe Theatre, conceiving the work as an operatic historical drama, with a pantomime of the history of Henry VIII’s first three wives taking place during the overture. The Globe’s curved wooden balconies acted as a backdrop to the action, from whence the courtiers and chorus observed, spied, and commented on the happenings on the ‘stage’ below. Lawless’s unified concept seamlessly integrated with Donizetti’s opera. 

The finely nuanced character portrayals etched with their compelling conflicts and contrasting emotions brought the opera to life as it unfolded amidst a set of wooden paneled walls. These twisted and turned to delineate the opera’s different locations, their varied formations creating the atmosphere of the scene, often claustrophobic. Antonello Allemandi’s initial lifeless conducting and soggy tempos resulted in unmoving climatic moments, which combined with lack of stage-pit balance allowed the orchestra to drown out the artists, even when singing at full throttle. But once this problem was corrected, one became immersed in the sheer splendour of the singing, and the power of the performance.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Ann Boleyn was exemplary, with a voice pure and clarion, nailing thrilling high notes with power to spare, and with believable heartfelt acting imbued with regal airs. Her intensity in the dramatic moments was scorching. Although Sonia Ganassi’s Jane Seymour was not as impressive, she was still effective, singing with precision and feeling. She rose to the occasion in her duet with Radvanovsky when she reveals to Anna that she is Henry VIII’s mistress, one of opera’s highpoints. Oren Gradus portrayed Henry VIII alternately as a mild Don Giovanni, and as a husband, hurt in the realization that his wife married him not for love but to be queen. Vocally his voice lacked colour and nuance, until near the end, when he rose to the occasion as a majestic king. Shalva Mukeria assayed Lord Richard Percy with luscious sound, hitting all his high notes with beautiful lyricism. His passion and fervour for Anna was palpable.

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