It was certainly a lot better than David McVicar’s staid, unenlightening production that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s season last fall. And Radvanovsky, rhythmic issues and all, is a better fit for this part, with her laser-clear voice and thought-out character portrayal, than the otherwise marvelous Anna Netrebko. And a good thing, too, since she will be singing the role at the Met herself.
Lawless approached “Bolena,” one in a trilogy of Donizetti operas based on English history, as an operatic counterpart to Shakespeare’s historical dramas. He therefore set this production — which originated at the Dallas Opera — in the Globe Theater: The chorus, and individual courtiers, commented on events from wooden balconies curving around the back of the stage. The paneled walls of Benoit Dugardyn’s sets, delineating rooms in the castle, were but an illusory shelter, affording no real protection from the court’s all-seeing eye: the claustrophobia they induced was at least partly intentional.
Lawless’s character development, though, evoked less Shakespeare than Hilary Mantel, the English author whose recent bestselling novels have brought the court of Henry the Eighth alive. Like Mantel’s, Lawless’s portrayals of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour and Henry himself were nuanced, and sometimes unexpected. Jane Seymour — in the opera Giovanna Seymour, played by the mezzo Sonia Ganassi — is no innocent victim, but a schemer motivated by “fama,” an Italian word that is usually translated in this context as “reputation” but here was rendered more directly as “fame,” so that Seymour was less concerned with her honor than her glory.
As for Henry, or Enrico — the bass Oren Gradus — in this production he is genuinely hurt that the beautiful Anna married him more for ambition than love; still enthralled by her; and out for revenge on her for not loving him enough. Gradus, in his company debut, relied more on physical than vocal heft to bring the role across; he sounded a little colorless until the very end, when his character was transforming from the young king to the august Henry the Eighth before the audience’s eyes. Unfortunately, his voice cracked nastily before his final, resounding note, a mischance that got at least this listener on his side; once he got hold of the note, he held it out impressively, and one imagined him punching the walls in frustration as soon as he got off stage.