Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, in a production by Stephen Lawless, opened last night at the COC. Bel canto fans, canary fanciers and, just maybe, the rest of us should rush and see it. The singing is extraordinary. The cast is led by Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and she gives, pretty much, a masterclass in bel canto technique. The control is extraordinary with gleaming top notes, exquisitely floated pianissimo, genuine trills and real emotion. Only a slight raspiness occasionally evident in the recits even hinted that this was a singer who was too sick to perform only a few days ago. Where to go next among some very fine performances? Bruce Sledge as Percy I think. This was thrilling tenor singing with passion, ringing high notes and wonderful musicality.
Keri Alkema, as Seymour wasn’t far, if at all, behind. Darker toned than Radvanovsky she made a most pleasing contrast. The duets were wonderful. In replacing an indisposed Eric Owens with Christian van Horn the COC lost little and gained quite a bit. Van Horn’s muscular bass-baritone filled the house with ease and it’s hard to imagine his youthful swagger being bested by the more experienced star. He was every inch (lots of them!) the emerging blood thirsty tyrant. Allyson McHardy’s Smeton was very fine too. She managed to look more boyish than I would have thought possible and produced a bright youthful tone in keeping with the character. Thomas Goerz as Rochefort and Jonathan Johnson in the unthankful role of Hervey rounded out a splendid cast. The COC chorus was as excellent as ever. Corrado Rovaris’ reading of the score seemed to aim for maximum drama but whether there’s really that much in the music is open to question.
Aye, and there’s the rub, if, like Mr. Lawless, we may riff off Shakespeare. It’s really not a very good opera. Certainly it’s the weakest of the Tudor trio; dramatically and musically, and Lawless’ production didn’t really find anything to counter that. He uses the same approach that he used to better effect in Roberto Devereux. The setting is the Globe Theatre. The concept, I suppose, is that the court is a theatre but the idea isn’t really explored beyond having the chorus sing mostly from the “theatre” gallery. What we get then is largely a rather dull, dark wooden semicircle in which the drama plays out. At least the stagecraft is better this time with fairly slick scene changes that don’t hold up the action.
There’s none of the playing with the contrasting narratives of English history (“Road to Empire” à la Shakespeare and the Whigs versus “perfidious Albion” à la Schiller) that added to the interest in Devereux. Maybe there just isn’t enough to work with in the rather feeble libretto which manages to make all the principal characters much less interesting than they actually were, as well as massively more stupid. Inserting the young (elevenish here?) Princess Elizabeth (actually only three years old at the time of her mother’s execution) doesn’t really add much apart from a rather groan worthy scene where King and Queen play tug o’ war with her. To conclude there’s a McVicar moment™ with looming sword wielding executioner appearing out of the back stage gloom. I don’t envy a director the task of making something of this piece. It would take a stroke of genius which, alas, Mr. Lawless doesn’t find. What we get is serviceable but no more.
So, go see this show and revel in the the singing but don’t think too hard about the production. Anna Bolena plays at the Four Season’s Centre until May 26th.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper