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Kevin Newbury makes Lyric debut with rarely staged ‘Anna Bolena’

BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

“The exit is tricky. There’s not a lot of time,” said director Kevin Newbury as he looked over the scene during a Lyric Opera of Chicago rehearsal for the company’s upcoming production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.”

He was trying to figure out how to choreograph the conclusion of the trio in the middle of Act 2, a section that is followed by the dramatic first appearance of Henry VIII’s mistress and wife-to-be, Jane Seymour, on the throne.

“For me, it’s all about dove-tailing,” Newbury said, “so it’s never about, ‘This scene is over, so everyone exit.’ But, rather, when this scene is over, you hold that, and we go seamlessly into the next scene.”

‘ANNA BOLENA’

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6, with seven additional

performances through Jan. 16

Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House,

20 N. Upper Wacker

Tickets: $39-$249

Info: (312) 827-5600; lyricopera.org

The director, making his Lyric Opera debut, is staging the company’s second-ever production of the infrequently performed Italian opera. “Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn)” opens Dec. 6 at the Civic Opera House and continues with seven additional performances through Jan. 16.

The once-forgotten work, which premiered in Milan in 1830, was brought back into spotlight in the 20th century through the efforts of such famous sopranos as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills, all eager to sing the daunting title role.

Lyric Opera’s presentation of the opera is a co-production with the Minnesota Opera. It originated there under Newbury’s direction as part of that company’s three-year staging of the trilogy of Donizetti’s Tudor-queen operas, which also include “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux.”

“For me, all three of these pieces are about martyrdom and what it means to die and to kill for a cause,” said the director, who is scheduled to stage Lyric Opera’s world premiere of Peruvian composer Jimmy López’s “Bel Canto” in 2015-16.

Based on actual historical events in England, “Anna Bolena” takes place during the middle of the Reformation. King Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church to marry Boleyn before the opera begins, and, as the action unfolds, he moves to replaces her with the younger Seymour.

“So really, the political and sexual politics are one and the same,” Newbury said, “and it’s about that intersection of church and state and the absolute power of a monarch to really kill someone in the name of a cause.”

The production is set in the 16th century, with semi-abstract scenery and costumes that suggest the period without being fully naturalistic. “It’s seen through a modern lens,” Newbury said. “It certainly feels like the silhouette of the time period, but the finishings are a little bit sleeker, a little more contemporary.”

Portraying Boleyn is Berwyn native Sondra Radvanovsky, a Lyric Opera regular who has performed the role once previously at the Washington [D.C.] Opera two years ago. “It’s glorious music,” the soprano said, “and it sits in a very nice part of my voice, I think, so you can do a lot with the dynamics and color of the voice.”

Her favorite part of the opera are the final 17 minutes, in which Boleyn is locked in the Tower of London and looks back over her life as she faces her impending execution.

“The music, ‘Al dolce guidami,’ is some of the most beautiful music that I sing,” Radvanovsky said. “It’s just touching, heartfelt and sincere. I relate to it very much, because having lost my father, I think about going back to that time and being able to re-live those years that I had with my father.”

The dramatic and vocal challenges of the role are many. While much of the music is written in the lower register of the soprano voice, it nonetheless calls for sections of high-flying coloratura or vocal ornamentation.

“She never stops singing,” Radvanovsky said. “It’s 3 to 3½ hours of Anne Boleyn non-stop. So, one of the biggest challenges is stamina and pacing. It’s very easy in this opera, with all of her outbursts, to go too far, and then in that 17-minute scene at the end, you’re out of juice.”

The soprano had high praise for the rest of the cast, which includes mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Seymour, bass-baritone John Relyea as Henry VIII and tenor Bryan Hymel as Richard Percy, who has affections for Boleyn.

“From top to bottom, you couldn’t get anybody better in the roles,” Radvanovsky said. “I think it’s going to be really exciting for the audience members.”

As for her, she is scheduled to appear in all three of Donizetti’s Tudor-queen operas over six months at New York’s Metropolitan Opera during the 2015-16 — an operatic feat that could possibly be a first.

“I’m not quite sure if I’m completely crazy or completely sane,” Radvanovsky said. “When I signed up for it, I didn’t know the depth and breadth of what I was taking on.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.