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