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‘Anna Bolena’ cast delivers strong performance at Lyric Opera

BY ANDREW PATNER | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

It was a very good week for opera in Chicago and it’s been a terrific season for Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Turin’s Teatro Regio brought Rossini’s “William Tell” to the Harris Theater and Chicago’s New Millennium Orchestra brought Bartok’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” to Pilsen. And Saturday, Lyric Opera capped off the week and made its current season roll five for five with the opening of Donizetti’s intense 1830 bel canto drama “Anna Bolena.” It’s a thrilling new production featuring a strong, young, well-integrated all-American cast and a focused and effective pit debut by conductor Patrick Summers.

‘ANNA BOLENA’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

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 stories of England’s King Henry VIII, his six wives and his powerful daughter and successor Elizabeth I are their own potboilers and have been favorites of artists, writers, composers and, later, film and television makers almost from those 16th century Tudor times on.

And Lyric’s production certainly gives us all of the real life and artistically licensed hothouse drama. But the special strengths of this presentation of the rarely produced opera come from taking the work seriously and revealing the inherent, tightly coiled drama found in both story and music. Intelligent staging, beautiful and focused design and go-for-broke but never over-the-top performances turns what on paper appears as a lengthy (three and a half hours with one intermission) connoisseur’s opera into an exciting, powerful seamless ride that had the measured and critical Lyric audience on its feet and cheering for five minutes after the final curtain.

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

During an eight-year period in the early 19th century, Gaetano Donizetti wrote four operas based on the Tudor period, the last three on queens Anne Boleyn, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I. Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis has created a successful multi-year trilogy of the “Three Queens” operas with a single design and direction team, and Lyric chose to co-produce and expand “Anna” with original young director Kevin Newbury and colleagues working with the larger stage and forces of Chicago.

Newbury sees the characters as real people — well aware they fulfill larger-than-life roles in their society and that marriage, divorce and even flirtation are literally matters of life and death but also can and will reshape the state, religion and history. With a cast that can straddle strong and committed vocal performance, naturalistic acting and the knowledge that their characters know their own lives are performances, and with Summers and the Lyric Orchestra getting the simple-seeming but highly tricky combination of lyricism and rhythm in the score, “Anna Bolena” frequently burns with white hot intensity.

Lyric presented the work only once before, for and with the legendary Joan Sutherland in 1985 (the Metropolitan Opera waited until just three years ago and with the more questionable casting of Anna Netrebko). I treasure the nearly 30-year old memories of those performances. But they were about Sutherland and a certain kind of vocal achievement and purpose. The staging was presentational and adapted to serve the star, who turned 59 during the run.

Sondra Radvanovsky, in contrast, has spent her still growing career putting the building blocks of performance together largely through the operas of Verdi that themselves built on, expanded and exploded the traditions of Donizetti and Bellini, and is ready to embrace Anna as a wholly three-dimensional character. Adding the role to her repertoire two years ago in Washington, D.C., she is here doing some of her best and most well-rounded work to date. It’s all there — coloratura runs, the rapid dynamic and emotional changes required by the score and a confident but giving performance, whether in her stately opening scenes or in the extended final pre-execution scene, which includes both Anna’s madness and her stoic acceptance of her fate.

Rising mezzo Jamie Barton as Giovanna (Jane Seymour) is not only excellent in her own right but perfectly embodies the pivot point between Anna and the King, creating character in her duets and ensembles with each and both and in her stage asides. The early Act Two duet — or duel? — between her and Anna, when she confesses that she is both Anna’s best friend and usurper, is one of those moments you wondered if you’d ever see again: two singers so matched in age and style turning up the heat, feeding off of each other and the orchestra, and yet doing so at the service of the story and not for a mere divas’ cat fight.

Bass John Relyea is smoldering, brutal and appropriately full of himself as a dashing Henry, showing off power in many dimensions. Debuting high tenor Bryan Hymel seemed a bit tentative at first as Percy, who has pined for Anna since childhood, but grew as the night went on and delivered the goods in his own pre-scaffold number. Mezzo Kelley O’Connor was convincingly boyish as Anna’s lovestruck page Smeton, though she lacked power in lower passages. Ryan Center members bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba and tenor John Irvin continue and expand on their reliable mainstage service as Rochford and Hervey respectively. The chorus is key to this work, both in Donizetti’s conception and Newbury’s staging — they are the public that the royals and nobles are ever conscious of. And Michael Black again drew high-level work from them.

Designers Neil Patel (sets and properties) and Jessica Jahn (costumes) have created work both sumptuous and undistracting, giving context for the story while allowing it to unfold before us in human terms first, all marked by colors, smooth turns between public and private space and the reinforcement of elevation and collapsing of characters on stage. Of course this is one-third of a work that they and lighting designer D.M. Wood created as a trilogy, but while Wood’s lighting could use some cooling, the work on its own makes a strong calling card for them at Lyric. Sarah Hatten continues her wig and makeup magic in making everything right and always at the service of the character and story.

Summers, the artistic and music director of Houston Grand Opera, was both spirited and supportive with orchestra and singers. Some uncharacteristic horn and wind entrances aside, the instrumental music was telling the story right along with everything else.