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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Opera Review: Head of the Class

Anna Bolena at the Washington National Opera.
Royal rumble: Anna Bolena (Sondra Radvanovsky) confronts Jane Seymour (Sonia Ganassi) in
the Washington National Opera production of Anna Bolena. Photo by Scott Suchman for the Kennedy Center
The 2012-2013 opera season is still in its first month, but it's already had its first great diva turn: Sondra Radvanovsky's portrayal of Donizetti's Anna Bolena at the Washington National Opera.

These performances mark the American singer's first turn as Henry VIII's second queen in the bel canto gem, an opera that has rapidly come back into fashion thanks to the meaty title role and her dramatic confrontations with her double-dealing husband (played here by Oren Gradus) and Giovanna (Jane) Seymour (Sonia Ganassi) her lady-in-waiting turned successor.

First of all, Ms. Radvanovsky has the pipes to sing the demanding title role, gliding easily through the role's tessitura and finding a glittering edge to her voice that allowed her to surmount everyone else on stage in the Act I finale, the moment when Anna discovers she has lost her seat on the throne. This same strength and dominating presence is there in the big Act II duet with Ms. Ganassi, where Anne discovers that "her Seymour" is in fact taking her place.

In Ms. Radvanovsky's hands, the hapless Queen becomes an exhilarating, heroic figure, finding her identity as a woman even as she meets her grisly fate. This is most apparent in the concluding mad scene. Donizetti is at his most innovative here, reflecting Anna's disturbed state in this long scene's multiple sections. Ms. Radvanovsky put herself fully into each of these fractured states, exploring the multiple facets of her character's impossible situation before grimly, resolutely splaying herself across the executioner's block.

She is surrounded by a good supporting cast. Sonia Ganassi does not quite have the fortitude to go toe-to-toe with the prima donna: Seymour is the decided loser in the epic confrontation between the two queens. When she finally confesses her love for the king, it comes off as a pale excuse for ambition. Far better is tenor Shalva Mukeria as Percy. He makes his WNO debut with these performances. He had a strong presence, a pleasing voice, and the fortitude to tackle and conquer the death-defying heights of his character's big aria: "Vive tu."

Oren Gradus also makes his company debut with these performances as Henry VIII. While the baritone does not have the dark, black sound one usually associates with operatic monarchs, his Falstaffian swagger and bluff manner makes him a monarch you love to hate. Claudia Huckle impresses and is appropriately conflicted as the treacherous Smeton. Aaron Blake has a small voice, but makes  a suitably oily Sir Hervey. Kenneth Kellogg is a resonant Rochefort with a rich bass voice, who makes one wish the role were a little larger.

Stephen Lawless' production (imported from the Dallas Opera) cleverly exploits the idea of Elizabethan theater with a unit set that recalls Shakespeare's Globe. The simple set (by Benoit Dugardyn) consists of tiered walkways for the chorus and a set of moving wooden walls that become both the throne room of Henry and the claustrophobic confines of the Tower of London. In another Shakespearean touch, a great tier of antlers appear to depict Henry's hunting preserve, making one think of cuckoldry and the Herne's Oak scene from Verdi's Falstaff. Antonello Allemandi was a welcome breath of fresh air at the podium. He led an energetic, Italianate account of the score that had plenty of energy but gave the singers room to breathe.

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