Cher Public

Let’s make it regal

Having heard a bit of the opening night broadcast and read some decidedly mixed reviews, I was totally unprepared for the remarkable performance of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena that I attended on December 15 at Chicago Lyric Opera. 

We’ve all had one of those rare nights at the opera where the chemistry between cast, conductor, and orchestra seemed to be firing on all cylinders. Last night, all four principal singers were on fire, singing and acting with blazing intensity, and the result was a wonderful evening of sheer clarion bel canto vocalism.

Sondra Radvanovsky had a great night, and it is remarkable how much her acting has improved since I first saw her as Leonora in Trovatore, where she was fine vocally but histrionically bland. She simply tore into the demanding role of the doomed Anna, her lush soprano evenly produced from top to bottom, tossing out slightly metallic but thrilling high notes along with moving pianissimos. Her stamina, too, was excellent, as she had plenty of plush tone for the lengthy “mad scene” that concludes the opera.

Mezzo Jamie Barton sang gloriously and managed to make Jane Seymour’s plight (loving King Henry but torn about betraying her Queen) seem touching and very human. Her Act II duet with Anna, “Dal mio cor punita io sono”, was the highlight of the evening, their voices blending perfectly. This duet garnered the biggest ovation of the night, and deservedly so.

Tenor Bryan Hymel had sounded rather shaky on the opening broadcast, but last night he used his potent, powerful tenor to splendid effect with thrilling high notes and a warm, fluid tone, and made his difficult cavatina “Vivi tu…” a moving and sympathetic moment.

And then there’s the Henry of bass John Relyea, a singer that has rarely impressed me in the past, always seeming better than serviceable but never very exciting. Well, in Henry VIII he seems to have found a character that perfectly fits his current estate, his voice sounding bigger than I expected but never forced.

His compelling characterization even earned him some boos at the curtain call (for his nasty Henry, not for his singing) and he responded good naturedly with a “off with her head” gesture.

I was less enamored of the singing in some other roles. Kelley O’Connor was appropriately androgynous as the Anna-besotted Smeton, but she struggled with lower notes and has a flexible but quite small voice. Richard Ollarsaba sang with beauty as Anna’s brother Rochford, but lacked the intensity of his colleagues. John Irvin was nicely smarmy as Henry’s toady, Lord Hervey.

Conductor Patrick Summers’ take on the score was exciting and driven, if not particularly nuanced. He is to be commended for keeping this long evening moving toward its wonderful final scene. The Lyric Opera Orchestra played splendidly for him, except for a single poor entrance from the brass.

The new production of director Kevin Newbury was a decidedly mixed bag. Neil Patel’s set design was efficient and sometimes quite beautiful (a magnificent coffered ceiling loomed over the proceedings) but occasionally jarring. I found the incessant movings of a metal staircase to be distracting, and the bedchamber-that-rotates-to-a-double-throne was clever but not very particular to the piece.

Jessica Jahn’s fine costumes used blacks and greys for the chorus of courtiers contrasted with bright blues and reds for the gowns and Henry’s jet black doublet. D. M. Wood’s lighting was usually effective (I liked his use of shadow particularly), but the black drop covered in twinkle lights was pretty but made me think of a Christmas pageant.

While Newbury’s direction emphasized the emotional and political sides of the drama, I found two of his additions to be major missteps. First, a sweet-faced child representing Anna’s daughter (of course, the future Elizabeth I) was brought out several times, the last one being a witness to her mother’s execution.

I found this device to be distracting in the extreme, especially since the poor thing is mute throughout, and had a terrified deer-in-the-headlights face every time she entered. I also thought that Newbury undermined the power of Anna’s “Coppia iniqua” by bringing in Henry and Jane, frozen as if they existed only in Anna’s addled mind.

And what was the opening tableau in Anna’s bedchamber about? Were we supposed to think this was the moment of Anna’s miscarriage of her second child? Or was she only distraught?

But these production quibbles are mild and easily fixable when the opera is revived. My takeaway as I left the theatre was a sense of hope that, if Lyric can assemble a cast of this caliber, perhaps its frequently dull casting can be made exciting again. This was a superb and uplifting evening of great singing and moving drama, one of my most satisfying evenings at the opera in recent memory.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

  • One of the best things about reviews from parterrians (and blog reviews in general) is that we don’t always get a review of the opening night. Yes, opening nights can have an extra excitement to them but sometimes, the subsequent performances are much stronger. Glad to hear that the cast has risen to such heights. Thanks for the review.

    • armerjacquino

      I especially feel this about the theatre. Critics must think that all plays are slightly tense, brittle affairs because they only ever see Press Nights.

    • Camille

      It almost has seemed on many occasions I’ve listened in on in the past few years that the prima is more like a dress rehearsal and I generally cut them all some slack. If there is anything out of the ordinary--e.g., Javier Camarena as Elvino--then, I make haste to get to the theatre before the stampede begins.

  • operaassport

    I don’t believe you can have a compelling or remarkable performance of an opera when the production is a complete dud (like it is here). Opera is not just singing; it’s a complete sum of many parts.

    This performance might work on the radio (and doesn’t completely because the conducting is so pedestrian) but it most certainly doesn’t work as a piece of theater in an opera house.

  • Some of my favorite evenings at the opera were at LOC. A friend (and I can’t believe that he died of AIDS 30 years ago!) took me to my very first opera and it was Macbeth with Josephine Barstow. I also saw I Capuletti with Cecilia Gasdia and Tatiana Troyanos, Cenerentola with Agnes Baltsa, Hoffmann with Ruth Welting, Valerie Masterson, Alfredo Kraus, and Marilyn Zschau, Zschau again in Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk, Francisco Araiza and Ruth Welting in Abduction. The only bad performance I ever saw there was a badly miscast and waaaay overparted Grace Bumbry in Ernani.

    • olliedawg

      Sanford, I am beyond envious that you got to see Troyanos and Gasdia in Capuletti. TT was the singer who convinced me that opera could be dramatic, involving, riveting, and from time to time, slyly funny. I really hope her reputation and recordings will be rediscovered by those too young to have seen her in person. She richly every opera lover’s admiration for her deep commitment to whatever she sang, even when she was surrounded by dull singers, dreadful productions, hideous costuming, and other mishagas. I can’t believe SHE died over 20 years ago. She was an artist to be treasured. (end of rhapsodic remembrance)

      • olliedawg

        “richly deserves every…” (fingers & brain out of alignment this evening)

  • Gualtier M

    We overlapped at LOC around 1985, Sanford. I saw that Capuleti with Gasdia’s U.S. debut. Also her Amina in “La Sonnambula”. A wonderful “Barbiere” with Von Stade, Lopardo and Thomas Allen. Luciano Pavarotti, Piero Cappuccilli and Fiorenza Cossotto in “Ballo in Maschera”. Domingo and Baltsa in “Samson et Dalila”. Horne in “Tancredi” and “Orlando” and Mrs. Quickly in “Falstaff”. Joan Sutherland in “Anna Bolena”. Vickers, Troyanos, Sotin, Welker and Nimsgern in “Parsifal”. “Nozze di Figaro” with Ramey, Lott, Raimondi, Von Stade and Maria Ewing’s understudy Joan Gibbons as Susanna. Kiri Te Kanawa as Fiordiligi and Elisabetta di Valois. Samuel Ramey as Filippo II, Don Giovanni, Figaro and Mephistopheles. Ghena Dimitrova as La Gioconda. Piero Cappuccilli as Di Luna and Renato in “Ballo”. Carol Vaness as Donna Anna and Vitellia. Karita Mattila’s U.S. debut as Donna Elvira. Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Anne Sofie Von Otter and Kathleen Battle in “Der Rosenkavalier”. Tomowa Sintow as the Trovatore Leonora and Violetta. Missed Domingo and Margaret Price in “Otello”. Later saw Domingo and Freni in “Fedora” before they did it at the Met and Ruth Ann Swenson, Jerry Hadley, Sam Ramey in a wonderful Graham Vick production of “The Rake’s Progress”.

    • olliedawg

      GM — wow..what a list of the fabulous and fantastic!

  • SilvestriWoman

    I was at the 12/9 performance and felt much the same as Henson. It was truly a singer-driven performance -- a testament to the power of early 19th C. opera. Though all of the singers physically held their own, the real drama came from their nuanced singing.

    It was my first time hearing Radvanovsky live, and I was mighty impressed. No one will ever be Callas, but this Sills freak found Radvanovsky superior to her idol in this role. I’d love to hear her sing all three queens, and Luisa Miller, too.

    I wasn’t as taken with Summers’ conducting. He seemed to stop the orchestra for applause, even when their was none, seeming like a musical cue card for the audience. In the great Anna-Percy duet, Radvanovsky seemed to get it, moving into her next line before anyone could applaud, keeping the drama going as well. Brava, diva!!!