Washington National Opera’s “Anna Bolena” – a Fitful Fairy-Tale

Oscar Wilde writes, “When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.” Washington National Opera’s current production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena is steeped in this same deceptive world of storybook fantasies of love and power. The ill-fated second wife of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, was England’s queen for a mere three years before she was executed for treason and adultery in 1536. Boleyn is an extremely popular historical figure for the fact that she further proves the rift between the Anglican Church and the Vatican and her daughter became the formidable Queen Elisabeth I. By eschewing certain historical accuracies, the production pushes the audience to suspend disbelief for the sake of the fairy-tale and immerse oneself in the emotional intensity and vocal virtuosity of the characters.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Anne Boleyn and Sonia Ganassi as Jane Seymour. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Antonello Allemandi, conductor, led the orchestra  through the overture with impassioned fervor while the characters were presented in front of a gold-embellished, burgundy tapestry. Projected on the tapestry were historical facts about the Tudor monarchs. Stephen Lawless, director, clearly sets up the storybook element from the beginning. Once struck from the stage, a familiar representation of the Globe Theatre provided the backdrop. The movable walls of the lower set contrasted with the daunting height of the upper rounded balconies, all designed by Benoit Dugardyn, which effectively split the stage into numerous acting spaces. These acting spaces were best used by the chorus providing both stunning visuals as well as transfixing tones from such height. To this taste, elements of the fantastical story – expressly the supernumeraries wearing animal skulls during the hunt scene – were distracting and unsuccessful.

The undoubted vocal draw to this production is Sondra Radvanovsky’s Anna Bolena. Donizetti’s writing for the title character is vividly emotional while she shifts from stoic to hysterical moments. Radvanovksy’s voice and presence is engrossing; nevermore than when she nimbly dips into the depths of chest voice only to soar to her powerful upper range moments later. Her vehement launch into the Act I Finale’s stretta (Giudi… ad Anna!) and brief, yet poignant, prayer at the beginning of Act II (Dio che mi vedi in core) illustrate succinctly the range with which Radvanovsky brings to the role. Her mad scene was somewhat disrupted by the large and numerous prison bars placed in front of her. However, she still managed to rend the audience’s hearts with her Al dolce guidami and finally make them feverish yet again with Coppia iniqua. Sonia Ganassi, as Anna’s rival Giovanna Seymour, has a much darker sound than Radvanovksy that did not always work to her advantage in terms of sound projection from the stage but did provide moments of tender richness throughout the performance.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Anne Boleyn and Sonia Ganassi as Jane Seymour. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Both Oren Gradus (Enrico VIII/Henry VIII) and Shalva Mukeria (Riccardo/Lord Richard Percy) gave strong performances. Gradus’ marked transition from the younger, charming Enrico VIII to the malicious antihero at the end of the opera was adroit. Besotted with Mukeria’s high notes, the only wish was that he gave more definition to the short running passages. Kenneth Kellogg (Lord Rochefort) is once again a welcome character on the WNO stage; displaying his reliably expansive bass tone and commanding stage presence. All were assisted by the performances of Claudia Huckle (Smeton) and Aaron Blake (Sir Hervey.)

From Tuesday’s performance it seemed that the audience were willing participants in the suspension of disbelief. Thus allowing themselves to fall in love with Donizetti’s breakthrough opera either for the first time or once more. Although the production would have benefited from clarity of focus on the fantastical elements, it served the emotional intensity of the performers, namely Radvanovsky. Overall, Donizetti’s Romantic tragedy continues its hold over bel canto lovers and the WNO production, though uneven, provided stunning visuals and vocal performances.

Anna Bolena is the first production of WNO’s 2012-2013 season, which also includes a revival of Don Giovanni, Patricia Racette in her role debut as Manon Lescaut, a new production of Norma starring Angela Meade in her role debut, and the company premiere and new production of the classic American opera Show Boat, directed by WNO Artistic Advisor Francesca Zambello. Remaining performances include: Friday, September 21 at 7:30 p.m.; Monday, September 24 at 7 p.m.; Thursday, September 27 at 7:30 p.m. ; Sunday, September 30 at 2 p.m.; Wednesday, October 3 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, October 6 at 7 p.m.

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