Washington National Opera's lavish, uneven 'Anna Bolena'

Good singing marred by occasionally eccentric directing and conducting. Photo: Scott Suchman

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2012 – The Washington National Opera opened its fall season at the Kennedy Center Opera House this weekend past with a lavish, intriguing, but occasionally problematic production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

More or less following the tragic story arc of British King Henry VIII’s unfortunate second wife—who’s about to be replaced by her own lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour (the first one)—Donizetti’s eponymous heroine owns one of the most strenuous roles in opera. It may have been for that very reason that WNO invited power soprano Sondra Radvanovsky to sing the role here. (She’ll eventually be taking it to the Met.)

Ms. Radvanovsky was vigorous and convincing as Anne (Anna in the Italian). She enlarged her character with her sheer presence, making Henry’s second wife bigger than life, a woman torn apart by passion and emotional torment and very much aware of her fatal isolation from the rest of the court. Ms. Radvanovsky’s instrument is a voice well suited to the big, tragic operas in which she has excelled. Yet paradoxically, it’s not out of place here in Donizetti’s bel canto world, either.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. (Credit: Cade Martin.)

While this production’s remaining principals clearly sing in that traditional style, Ms. Radvanovsky, even adjusting her instrument down a bit, seemingly does not, or at least not in the way we might expect. Her phrasing is elegant. Her diction and intonation are impeccable. And her tone is elegant and nearly always authoritative. Yet her sheer, commanding power makes us think of Puccini’s regal, if flawed, Tosca at times rather than the somewhat more fragile heroines from the Age of Donizetti and Bellini.

In other words, Ms. Radvanovsky’s Anne is still very much the Queen in this production right up to the end. On opening night, her singing was thrilling, really, and one simply had to adjust a bit to her presence in this kind of opera and enjoy the experience as something entirely new and unexpected.

Also impressive was mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi who sang the role of Jane Seymour, Anne’s surprise rival for Henry’s affections. Ms. Ganassi, too, possesses an impressively big instrument though it’s not quite as dominant as is Ms. Radvanovsky’s. But Ms. Ganassi’s vocal style works well in delineating her violently conflicted character. And it’s absolutely perfect when she duels one-on-one with Ms. Radvanovsky in their famous confrontation scene, clearly one of the high points in both this opera as well as Saturday evening’s premiere performance here.

Anne (Sondra Radvanovsky) and Jane Seymour (Sonia Ganassi) exchange a few thoughts on Henry VIII. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

The remaining principals were also quite good. Mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle was convincingly boyish as the comic yet eventually tragic teenage troubadour-page, Smeton. Tenor Shalva Mukeria sang the role of Anne’s original lover, Percy.

Bass Owen Gradus was the kind of swaggering, impossibly self-centered King that most of us have imagined Henry VIII to be. He seemed slightly underpowered Saturday evening, however, and suffered from a brief, peculiar vocal malfunction in the second act.

One wonders if there was something in the air this weekend as marvelous soprano Eglise Gutiérrez suffered a similar mishaps over at Lisner on Sunday afternoon as she sang the role of Amina for the Washington Concert Opera in another bel canto classic, Bellini’s La Sonnambula.

Henry VIII (Owen Gradus) and Anne (Sondra Radvanovsky) have a little tug of war with Princess Elizabeth who’s not actually in Donizetti’s libretto. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

In any event, back at the Kennedy Center, Mr. Gradus quickly recovered and encountered no further issues Saturday night.

While the singing, as we’ve indicated, was generally fine in this performance, we had issues with other areas of this production. Take for example the intriguing set originally designed for the Dallas Opera.

Visually, this set is indeed impressive, resembling a towering version of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The set’s tiered “seating” areas allowed for creative entrances, exits, and singing by the chorus as well as other characters, creating the impression that what was occurring below was a real-life drama to be watched and commented upon by the spectators.

Meanwhile, down below on ground level, the action was surrounded by various configurations of a series of big wooden panels or doors. Moving, without a great deal of noise, via near-silent wheels; and folding inward and outward by means of integral hinges, these panels efficiently altered space on the stage in a way that suited each scene and minimized downtime. So far, so good.

The problem was that some of these frequent reconfigurations ended up blocking the view of the singers primarily for patrons seated on the right side in both the orchestra and the balcony sections. In fact, we heard more than one patron expressing some irritation at this during the intermission. Why didn’t someone—like director Stephen Lawless—correct these sightline issues during rehearsals?

In fact, the direction in this production seemed at times to entirely miss the mark. Especially problematic for us—and particularly so for this reviewer’s esteemed spouse—was the insertion, by director Lawless, of the young Princess Elizabeth in several scenes. It’s a non-singing, walk-on interpolation that we can find nowhere in Donizetti’s libretto.

Young Elizabeth’s initial appearance, running about and playing tag in the royal quarters, seemed clever enough, serving as a reminder to us as to how the wheel of fortune can affect the personal and political futures of nearly any individual. But successive appearances by Elizabeth became simply gratuitous and bathetic, calling attention to themselves and ultimately becoming precious. And unnecessary.

A worse problem than that pesky young Elizabeth was the positively weird decision to drop a set of wooden prison bars down over Anne and the other condemned prisoners during the opera’s penultimate scene. From where we were seated in the orchestra section, the lights played off on this contraption rather strangely, with the glare transforming the wooden bars into vertical geometry that resembled a shimmering piece of 1960s Op Art. In turn, this optical effect made it nearly impossible to see the character of Anne as she confronted her final moments on Earth.

Just prior to the opera’s final scene, these bars were blessedly lifted. But still, they had proved extraordinarily annoying at just the wrong time—during this opera’s emotional and musical climax.

One wonders. Perhaps this contraption could be repurposed as kindling for a big outfield bonfire later this month to celebrate the Nats’ first National League pennant. Well, it’s a thought, anyway.

Also problematic on opening night: the performance by the WNO orchestra under the baton of Antonello Allemandi. The horns made a couple of terrible entrances and botched key moments. Other orchestral entrances were sloppy and off kilter.

Ironically, the orchestra actually played quite well once it past the opening bars of a given section. But the murkiness around the edges seemed inexcusable, particularly given the fine effort put forth by the cast and chorus.

In the end, the buck stops on the conductor’s desk. Hopefully, he and the orchestra will work together to improve the level of playing in the remaining performances of Anna Bolena.

Meanwhile, WNO will open its next production of the season—Mozart’s immortal Don Giovanni—tonight at the Kennedy Center. We’ll be there. Stay tuned.


WNO’s Anna Bolena runs through October 6. For tickets and information, visit the Washington National Opera’s section of the Kennedy Center’s website.


Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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