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The second act is visually stunning, vocally impressive, and builds to a mad scene that—as they always do—nearly takes the wheels off the train.
Whether that's a good thing or not is arguable, but it shouldn't be missed.
Director Kevin Newbury and set designer Neil Patel have a take on this tragic history opera that makes most of it as engrossing as a contemporary thriller, though it was written in 1830.
The original libretto by Felice Romani gave them a leg up on that (mad scene notwithstanding). Working with the better-than-fiction story of England's infamous Henry VIII, Romani and Donizetti focused on a deadly triangle: the relationship between the king; his second wife, Anne Boleyn; and the lady-in-waiting who was to be his third wife, Jane Seymour. The two women—friends turned rivals—are complex, flesh-and-blood characters, acutely drawn.
Tension builds from the first moments as Anne, who usurped the queen before her (inadvertently launching the Church of England), gradually realizes that the tables are about to be turned. And it ramps right up to the time when, awaiting her execution on trumped-up charges of adultery (also, in real life, incest, and plotting regicide), she falls into the aforementioned delirium, which goes on way too long for anyone to fully pull off.
(OK, I need to admit a bias here: I'm not a fan of mad scenes, especially those traditionally handed to women. Jack Nicholson in The Shining? Sure. Macbeth? Tolerable. Ophelia? Oh, please. This smart, strong, regal, and rational Anne? I don't think so, not even if her head's about to be chopped.)
It works as vocal showcase, however. As Anne, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky does the heavy lifting for most of the opera’s three-and-a-half-hour running time (including one intermission), and still delivers on this extremely demanding final solo. In a role made famous for 20th-century audiences by Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, Berwyn native Radvanovsky is powerful and moving.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is creamy-voiced and appealing as the sorry-but-seduced Jane Seymour; her tell-all duet with Radvanovsky in the opening scene of the second act is a musical and dramatic highlight. And bass John Relyea looks and sounds every bit like the ruthless Henry. There's fine work by the entire cast, including the Lyric Opera chorus, very much on view, and by the orchestra, conducted by Houston Grand Opera artistic and music director Patrick Summers.
The visuals are a knock out. Patel's sleek sets make use of color and a few period elements to suggest an entire environment or dynamic: a coffered ceiling turns the bare stage into a palace, for example, and the royal throne, on a revolving pedestal, is backed by the royal bed. Dramatic use of color carries through in the steely, satiny blues and grays of Jessica Jahn's beautiful period costumes, which struck me as perfect, except for one. Anne in the tower needed something more like sackcloth and tatters than the billowy white (night-?) gown she had. It might be historically correct, but it makes her look like Wendy, about to take off with Peter Pan.
This production, originally developed with Minnesota Opera, includes two wordless vignettes that represent events before and after those depicted by Romani. In the opening, a pregnant Anne is gripped by the throes of labor, apparently with the miscarried male heir she failed to deliver to Henry. And, in a frozen moment at the end, as Anne goes to her death, she glances back to where her young daughter stands looking on. The tiny, forlorn girl in ruff and farthingale would be the future Elizabeth I.
Anna Bolena continues at Lyric Opera tonight at 7:30 PM and for six more performances through January 16.