Review: Radvanovsky’s Astonishing Anna Bolena Adorns An Admirable Cast – Washington National Opera, October 6, 2012

Washington National Opera imported Stephen Lawless’ production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” from the Dallas Opera. Conceived by Lawless as the first part of the so-called “Tudor Trilogy”, followed by Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux”, it was the last of the three productions (with set designs by his frequent collaborator, the Belgian Benoit Dugardyn) to be premiered in Dallas. The Kennedy Center has the opportunity (assuming the other two productions are to follow in later seasons) to see Lawless’ cleverly intertwined productions in the correct chronological order.

The performance proved a tour de force for the American dramatic soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who now possesses a spinto voice of impressive power, yet retains the coloratura flexibility and vocal control needed for this iconic role.

[Below: Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena; resized image of a Cade Martin photograph for the Washington National Opera.]

Donizetti’s Tudor Operas

Donizetti looked for richly dramatic subjects, and it is both a coincidence and a reflection of out-sized historical personages of 16th century England that three of his operas came to be known as the Tudor Trilogy in the 20th century.

Beverly Sills (along with her record company and home theater, the New York City Opera) popularized the trilogy term by promoting her appearances in the title roles of “Bolena” and “Stuarda” and the Queen Elizabeth in “Devereux”.

Lawless Enlists Elizabeth

Although Donizetti and his brilliant librettist Felice Romani depart from a strictly factual historical drama about Ann Boleyn (not every fact of which is unanimously accepted by historians) “Anna Bolena” does give one a sense of the dramatic events of this period of Henry VIII’s reign. [For additional thoughts on this topic, see my review of the original Dallas run of Lawless’ production at Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Beautifully Sung “Anna Bolena” Completes Dallas Opera’s Tudor Trilogy – November 14, 2010.]

Significantly, Lawless has centered his productions on a more direct link with each other than the fact that there is a prominent soprano diva role within each. Each involves dramatic events in Queen Elizabeth I’s life. Although Donizetti and his important librettist Felice Romani did not call for Elizabeth to appear in “Anna Bolena”, Lawless creates a non-textual mute role in which young Elizabeth scampers throughout the production.

In an arresting scene, after Anna learns that ludicrous charges against her will be formally heard by Henry’s star chamber court, Anna and Henry engage in a fight over her.

[Below: Henry VIII (Oren Gradus, left) and Anne Boleyn (Sondra Radvanovsky, right) battle over their daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I (Josie Williams, center, in yellow dress) as Hervey (Aaron Blake, far right, seated); edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Elizabeth appears in a tableau during Donizetti’s overture (respectfully led by Italian conductor Antonello Allemandi in his Washington National Opera debut assignment) in which the twisted relationships between Henry, Giovanna (Jane Seymour) and Anna are memorialized. In the upper balconies of the production – representing the Bard’s Old Globe – the King’s sinister operative, Hervey, plots the next move against Anna.

Early in the production Elizabeth is playing tag with young page Smeton, whose adolescent crush on Anna will cost him, Anna, and Anna’s brother and Anna’s childhood sweetheart their heads.

On at least one occasion, Elizabeth’s appearance clarifies a character’s motivations. Smeton, who is declaiming his infatuation with Anna while sneaking into her bedroom, is accompanied by Elizabeth, who would presumably have easy access to her mother’s apartments.

The Wooden “O”

Lawless’ use of a set structure evoking the Bard’s Old Globe is a prominent feature of his production. It provides opportunities for Lawless to focus the audience’s attention on various events occuring onstage. As mentioned above, whenever Hervey (effectively played as he was in Dallas by Jiulliard graduate Aaron Blake) appears in the center of the second balcony you know that something untoward will be happening to Anna or the people who will share her awful fate.

The upper floors of the “O” is used for the chorus who not only have Donizetti’s melodies to sing, but whose each appearance comments upon the course of action. A consequence of having each member of the chorus standing at the railing of one of the two upper floors of the set is that the spatial distribution of the chorus’ voices provides a particularly dramatic sound.

It also means that members of the chorus have no other choristers standing in front of them, maximizing the opportunity of each chorister to react to the events as an individual, rather than a part of a crowd. It also provides multiple levels for Lawless’ ideas to play out – such as men dressed as deer who battle one another (symbolizing the hunt), an thematic idea that recurs in Lawless’ production of “Maria Stuarda”.

One feature of the “Bolena” set is that the lower ring of the “O” was obscured by wall panels that moved into different formations depending on the dramatic needs of the staging. This provided opportunities for the protagonists to move swiftly from one scene to another, and for Hervey to lurk at doorways, with intent of hearing the conversations within.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Anna

Radvanovsky’s performance was a series of vocal triumphs. If one were seeking a definition of a bravura performance, Radvanovsky’s Anna would be a splendid example.  From her first act cabaletta Non v’ha sguardo cui sia dato to the final mad scene and then acceptance of her death, Radvanovsky was in total control of the stage every moment she sang. An imposing presence, she also proved to be an effective actor.

Oren Gradus’ Enrico

Oren Gradus is one of two members (along with Aaron Blake) appearing in both the original Dallas production and its Kennedy Center revival. He has become something of a Donizetti specialist, my having attended his performances in that composer’s roles in Dallas, Houston and San Francisco.

Some students of the opera have concluded that Donizetti and Romani emphasized Henry’s love relationships and left issues of politics (obviously including religious politics) by the wayside. I wouldn’t concede to this viewpoint anyway, but Lawless’ is a loveless staging.

Gradus’ characterization of the King is appropriately manipulative and villainous, leaving the impression that he much prefers scheming and even carousing with his henchman, Hervey, to expending any effort in building a loving marriage.

[Below: Enrico VIII (Oren Gradus, left) imposes his will on Giovanna Seymour (Sonia Ganassi, right); edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

In one of Lawless’ many striking ideas, Gradus’ Enrico, at the very moment of Anna’s final humiliation, when she realizes that all hope is gone, Gradus is assisted by his men in dressing in the formal wear that we associate with Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII. Then, the newly crowned Giovanna and Enrico stand as if in a formal portrait above the block on which Anna prepares for her beheading.

Sonia Ganassi’s Giovanna Seymour

Last May, I had attended a performance of the Italian soprano Sonia Ganassi’s impressive appearance in a Massenet opera. [See my review at Francesco Meli, Sonia Ganassi in Theatrically Absorbing “Werther” – Washington National Opera, May 14, 2012.] She was outstanding as Giovanna as well, a character deeply conflicted in her duets with Enrico.

In her final duet with Radvanovsky’s Anna, her portrayal gained audience sympathy, as well as a long ovation, for one of the many highlights of this great opera..

[Below: Anna (Sondra Radvanovsky, left) is shocked to discover that her maid of honor, Giovanna (Sonia Ganassi, right) is to succeed her as Queen of England; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Shalva Mukeria’s Percy

Georgian tenor Shalva Mukeria showed again that the world’s supply of great lyric Donizetti tenors is apparently inexhaustible, and that the small Republic of Georgia, the ancient legendary home of Jason, the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece, continues to produce opera singers of international rank.

[Below: Shalva Mukeria (seen here in another role; edited image of a photograph from OperaDomani Management.]

Kenneth Kellogg’s Rochefort

The career of American bass-baritone Kenneth Kellogg continues its upward pace, providing a rich sound in the role of Anna’s ambitious brother Lord Rochefort.

[Below: Kenneth Kellogg as Lord Rochefort; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

 Claudia Huckle’s Smeton

In an evening filled with vocal treasures, contralto Claudia Huckle proved to be a wonderful Smeton, making a strong impression as the page boy both dramatically and vocally.

[Below: Claudia Huckle, who was the page Smeton; edited image, based on a promotional photograph from]

Final Thoughts

I have become a great fan of Lawless’ work, including the trio of Donizetti works on traumatic events in the life of Elizabeth I of England. There is an advantage (beyond the obvious one of spending evenings immersed in Donizetti’s beautifully constructed, theatrically absoring operas) in knowing all three of these works in Lawless’ conception of them.

Even though I suspect it would be regarded as financially unfeasible by most opera managements, I think that opera goers that could see all three productions together in the same season (perhaps in a festival setting) would be a brilliant immersion in three of the great Donizetti works of the 1830s.

For my previous reviews of performances by Sondra Radvanovsky, see: Radvanovsky, Zajick, Lopardo, Anger Star in Conlon-led Verdi “Requiem” – San Francisco Symphony, October 22, 2011, and also, 21st Century Verdi: Radvanovsky Leads World Class Lyric Opera “Ballo” Cast – Chicago, November 15, 2010, and also, Licitra, Radvanovsky Gleam in Lyric Opera’s Glorious New “Ernani”: Chicago, November 5, 2009, and also, Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009, and also, Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009, and also, The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008, and also, Friedkin’s Miraculous, Radvanovsky’s Revelatory L.A. “Suor Angelica” – September 6, 2008.

For my previous reviews of performances by Oren Gradus, see: Joyce DiDonato is Vocally and Dramatically Convincing in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2012, and also, Dessay’s Lucia di Lammermoor Delights in San Francisco – June 29, 2008, and also, Exotic Immersion: “Samson” in S. F. – September 11, 2007, and also, Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007.

 For my previous reviews of productions or production revivals by Stephen Lawless, see: Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last: Hymel, Perez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011, and also, World Treasure: a Stunning Dallas Opera Revival of Tarkovsky’s Classic, Insightful “Boris Godunov” – April 1, 2011, and also, The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Stephen Lawless’ “Maria Stuarda” in Toronto – May 4, 2010, and also, Los Angeles Opera’s Magic Potion: Nino Machaidze in “L’Elisir d’Amore” – September 12, 2009, and also, Dimitri Pittas a Sparkler in Lawless’ Deft “L’Elisir d’Amore” – Santa Fe July 4, 2009, and also, The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Papian, Costello in Lawless’ Dallas “Devereux” – January 23, 2009, and also, Nicely Done “Il Trovatore” in Verdi-Friendly San Diego – April 4, 2007.