Chicago, Lyric Opera: “Anna Bolena”

Chicago, Lyric Opera – 2014/2015 Season
Tragedia lirica in two acts in Italian.
Libretto by Felice Romani
Music by Gaetano Donizetti
Lord Richard Percy BRYAN HYMEL
Lord Hervey JOHN IRVIN
Orchestra & Chorus Lyric Opera
Conductor Patrick Summers
Director Kevin Newbury
Set Designer Neil Patel
Costume Designer Jessica Jahn
Lighting Designer D.M. Wood
Chicago, December 6, 2014

Since its restoration to the modern operatic repertoire, Donizetti’s ANNA BOLENA has flourished within two separate traditions of production values.  Maria Callas, the inspiration for the now legendary 1957 revival of the opera at La Scala, once said:  “When I work on a character, I always ask myself:  ‘If I were in her place, what would I do?’  One must transform oneself while remaining oneself.  From time to time I consult the historical context, but with prudence:  when I played Anne Boleyn, for instance, I wanted to read books, collect information, and I realized that the real historical person had very little to do with the heroine of that opera!  I think that it’s instinct in the first place that points us in the right direction—the music suffices to explain everything.  I’m certain that with sensibility one can discover the composer’s world, the atmosphere of which he dreamed.”
Callas was espousing an aesthetic championed by Luchino Visconti, who directed her in that touchstone 1957 production.  This style has become known as riesumazione or the recreation of a visual manner used during the time in which 19th century operas were first produced.  According to critic Andrew Porter, riesumazione makes use of “décor that matches the spirit and style of a work, adorning and enhancing its merits without trying to translate them into a modern idiom.”  In contrast, the New York City Opera staged all 3 of Donizetti’s so-called “Queen” trilogy (MARIA STUARDA and ROBERTO DEVEREUX being the other two) for Beverly Sills, with an approach that drew heavily on historical realism, scrupulous Tudor period detail and biographical references.
Both conventions represent valid renderings of Donizetti’s first great success.  Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new ANNA BOLENA, a co-production with the Minnesota Opera, draws somewhat upon the City Opera tradition but dilutes its impact with garish tableaux and swiftly moving set pieces that put this writer in mind of a provincial road show.  The production employs the iconic Tudor rose throughout, including a dark and dully executed show drop.  Neil Patel’s skeletal designs look cheap and unnecessarily dwarfed on the large stage of the Civic Opera House, an unfortunate result only emphasized by Lighting Designer D.M. Wood’s crudely realized transitions from one time of day to another–no more so than a backdrop of twinkling starlight, which seemed more appropriate for Marvin the Martian’s observatory from the Bugs Bunny cartoon.  Stage director Kevin Newbury brought no coherent narrative voice to the proceedings, alternating between prosaic literalism and overwrought histrionics as Anna begins to lose her grasp on reality.  The chorus was clumped on, around and off the stage in a less-than-inspired manner.  Furthermore, the inclusion of the young Elizabeth I as an almost ubiquitous pantomime character has become a cliché of modern productions, a decision not strongly supported by text or music and serving to dilute focus from the central interpersonal tensions.  Only Jessica Jahn’s richly textured costumes seemed worthy of a major international opera company.
As Anne, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky offered a vocally flawed, inconsistently realized but ultimately successful portrayal of the hapless queen.  Radvanovsky possess a cool, distinctly non-Italianate sound and a controversial technique.  Her voice, with its rapid vibrato, was beset by edge and buzz throughout the early scenes of the opera, only gradually settling into a more poised delivery.  On the credit side, she has a wide dynamic range and phrases carefully and with sensitivity.  But she has an annoying habit of scooping up to pitch, attacked many high notes in a piercing, strident manner and her coloratura is merely approximate.  However, Radvanovsky pulled it together for the tour-de-force final scene, filling out the long phrases of the cavatina sections with admirably sustained legato.  She tired near the end of “Al dolce guidami,” with some ragged attacks but this was excusable given the demands of a long and exhausting assignment.  Radvanovsky struck the desired note of tragic stature in the final cabaletta but elsewhere her characterization lacked the authority of a grand tragedienne.  Still, she brought the opera to a blazing conclusion and the audience rewarded her with a loud and ringing ovation.
The monarch’s preference for the seconda donna was totally understandable on this occasion, given the brilliant performance by mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Jane.  Her warm, lustrous instrument is a thing of wonder, absolutely even in scale and secure throughout the range.  Barton earned sympathy as the rival for the monarch’s affections, despite the character’s rather self-serving view of her moral predicament.  Bass John Relyea had a fine vocal outing as King Henry but the role as written doesn’t amount to much; the character has no aria and spends the entire evening as a foil to the other characters rather than functioning as a central force in the drama.
In his company debut, tenor Bryan Hymel scored positively with his bright, ringing, forwardly placed sound, recalling at times the work of Neil Shicoff.  His ardent, passionately enacted Percy gave the performance its deepest emotional charge and he drew cheers for his moving delivery of the often cut aria “Vivi tu.”  Hymel’s singing was always stylish, attractive and in service of the dramatic moment.  As Smeton, Kelley O’Connor cut a sympathetic figure but her swallowed mezzo was marred by register breaks and did not project well in the large auditorium.  Conductor Patrick Summers led a crisp, cleanly played, rhythmically alert edition of the score, a few opening night missteps aside.
In summary, a disappointing production featuring a problematic if persuasive leading lady and an even more convincing cast of supporting players. Photo credits Todd Rosenberg