Lyric Opera’s uneven “Anna Bolena” lacks a sharp cutting edge

Sun Dec 07, 2014 at 11:05 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

John Relyea as KIng Henry VIII and Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
John Relyea as King Henry VIII and Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s opening performance of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena was one of those classic opera nights where one can view the royal goblet as half full or half empty.

It’s not hard to understand why some patrons left at intermission, with a dramatically stilted and indifferently sung performance that felt like a work in progress at best. The second half of the evening provided greater dramatic urgency and vocal fireworks yet the end result was a curiously uneven bel canto game of thrones.

Anna Bolena has only been produced by Lyric Opera once previously, for Joan Sutherland’s Chicago swan song in 1985. For its final production of 2014, Lyric is reviving Donizetti’s Tragedia lirica in a new production, which opened Saturday night.

Anna Bolena is considered the best of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy, painting the love triangle between the maritally prolific King Henry VIII, his out-of-favor second wife Anne Boleyn and the king’s latest inamorata Jane Seymour, Anne’s lady in waiting and her successor in the king’s chambers. While such a scenario presents ripe opportunities for queen-in-distress drama, there are few celebrated set pieces in Bolena, although the opera offers ample solo bel canto arias for the principals as well as toe-tapping melodies in Donizetti’s familiar vein.

One had great hopes for the pairing of Sondra Radvanovsky and Jamie Barton after hearing some glorious bel canto vocalism from the duo as another pair of romantic rivals in Bellini’s Norma at San Francisco Opera in September (a hapless new production that will come to Chicago in a future season).

Yet even with her experience in this repertory, Radvanovsky did not have one of her most consistent nights. In Act 1 her singing was surprisingly rough and under pitch at times and while the tall soprano brought a regal persona to the role, there was little intensity to her portrayal of the ill-fated Anne, the singer sounding ill at ease and stinting on the coloratura fireworks.

Radvanovsky improved markedly after intermission, singing with greater fire, assurance and dramatic involvement, the extended Act 2 duet with the penitent Jane (“Dal mio cor punita io sono”) bringing forth some exciting high notes and theatrical frisson. In Anne’s climatic mad scene, the soprano overdid it with twitchy actorly excess, yet Radvanovsky offered some lovely hushed singing in the more restrained moments.

Jamie Barton’s Jane Seymour was efficiently sung with big mezzo tone, musically sensitive and attentive to bel canto style. Yet unlike her richly textured Adalgisa at SFO, Barton’s Jane was decidedly bland both vocally and in characterization. The singer provided little expressive variety or inner detail to the conflicted other woman, and overall made Henry’s attraction to Barton’s Seymour over Radvanovsky’s Anne seem even less plausible.

As King Henry, John Relyea got no help from the staging, which treated Henry as even more of an abusive, bullying jerk than usual. Vocally Relyea was first class, his bass richer and even more commanding than previously, Relyea singing with a firm line and power as well as sensitivity.

As Anne’s former lover Richard Percy, Bryan Hymel seemed to have some nerves in his opening moments, but soon settled down to deliver one of the finest performances of a mixed evening. In his company debut, Hymel displayed a gleaming tenor, throwing off clarion high C’s and bringing firm dramatic conviction to his confrontation with Henry.

Richard Ollarsaba, a Ryan Center young artist, showed impressive maturity and vocal strength as Rochford, Anne’s brother, holding his own with Hymel in the tenorial male bonding of the prison scene.

As Smeton, Anne’s adolescent admirer who unwittingly becomes Henry’s tool for the queen’s demise, Kelly O’Connor was convincingly androgynous and sang her Act 1 cavatina gracefully though her singing was unevenly projected thereafter. John Irvin was solid in the small role of Hervey.

The entire production team was making their Lyric Opera debuts. Neil Patel’s quasi-minimalist stage design was striking enough, with an elaborately carved ceiling panel from which columns and large paintings descended, and a small revolving set alternating two thrones with a royal bedchamber. Less happy was a decidedly out-of-period steel staircase that was whirled around by supers with the singers perched precariously at the top. D. M. Wood’s stark and imaginative lighting deftly finessed some of the staging missteps and Jessica Jahn’s period costumes were resplendent and effective.

Kevin Newbury is a gifted stage director but this was not an auspicious Chicago debut. The decision to have the chorus standing immobile and expressionless may have been intended to paint a cold and hostile social milieu, but the result made for dull visuals and a lack of stage energy. Likewise too much of the blocking was either awkward or literal and old-fashioned. The final scene went to the opposite extreme with Newbury failing to rein in Radvanovsky’s over-the-top histrionics.

The evening’s dramatic low point occurred when Henry breaks into Anne’s bedroom to find three men there. Audience hilarity ensued with the king’s obvious statement in the surtitle, “I am outraged!”

It was high time that Patrick Summers made his Lyric Opera debut. There is no finer conductor of contemporary American repertory and one hopes that the artistic director of Houston Grand Opera will return to Lyric—preferably to lead the overdue Chicago debut of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, one of the most impressive American operas of recent decades, which Summers conducted in its world premiere.

Yet with Anna Bolena, Summers’ direction was less consistent—the rhythmic vigor was there but too little bel canto elegance, and dramatic intensity was a sometime thing. Summers’ company debut wasn’t helped by fitful lack of coordination with the singers and some of the sloppiest orchestra playing heard in the Lyric pit in years.

This production made numerous small cuts but should have taken more, especially in an evening that stretched to three-and-one-half hours with just a single intermission. The finale felt especially interminable with Anne’s mad scene seeming to go on forever. Bring on the executioner, already!

Anna Bolena runs through January 16.; 312-827-5600.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Lyric Opera’s uneven “Anna Bolena” lacks a sharp cutting edge”

  1. Posted Dec 07, 2014 at 10:23 pm by Douglas Susu-Mago

    There is a Peter Sellers farce in which he, as a small-town theater critic, submits his review of a play that, due to an illicit dalliance, he has failed to actually attend. One is tempted to suspect a similar dereliction on the part of Lawrence Johnson for his completely off-the-mark travesty of a review of an extraordinary Anna Bolena at Lyric last night. Though, to be charitable, perhaps the proximate cause was a serving of bad shellfish just prior to curtain time.

    For an accurate account, readers should refer to the two glowing reports published by the Tribune and the Sun-Times.

    Reviews like Mr. Johnson’s (who should be enjoined from further such assignments) are damaging, in that readers and attendees who were as thrilled as my wife and I, but are unsure of their own perceptive powers, are led to assume a lack of discernment on their own parts, rather than on the part of the writer.

    Shame on you, Lawrence A. Johnson! And yet, a wish for a speedy recovery from your shellfish misadventure.

  2. Posted Dec 08, 2014 at 8:06 am by Richard Neigh

    The “hapless” production of Norma you referenced in San Francisco was also a Kevin Newbury production. I saw it and although the singing was magnificent, the production was boring. Fast forward to this weekend where I had a similar experience at Lyric. I’m not sure how gifted this young director is, but I for one will listen to a CD or live radio broadcast when he returns to Lyric.

  3. Posted Dec 14, 2014 at 10:35 am by Lynn

    Review is spot on, shell fish mishap or not. But again, I have only been going to the Lyric for 54 years.

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