The soprano was dazzling dramatically and vocally, but her rhythm was so mushy that some showpieces fell flat. The director delved beneath the piece’s surface to tease out convincing characters, but the wooden set panels moving around the stage were distracting and sometimes squeaky. The cast was good in places, dreary in others.
In short: Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena,” which opened the Washington National Opera’s season on Saturday, was an up-and-down evening. But on balance, the good outweighed the not good. Sondra Radvanovsky offered some singing that was simply intoxicating, making the kind of sounds you want to bathe in. And Stephen Lawless, the director, told such a compelling story that it involved you even when other singers were less strong.
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.
Anna’s real love interest is, of course, a tenor, Lord Percy (Riccardo), to whom she was pledged before Enrico came on the scene. Shalva Mukeria, another WNO debutant, sang with a constricted, buzzing sound but indubitably knows how to use his voice; he didn’t flag, nailed all his high notes, and brought quite a bit of ardor to his portrayal of a character who’s annoying even by Italian tenor standards. (Get over the woman who dumped you, already!) Aaron Blake, another tenor, was reliable in the smaller part of the toadying Hervey. Two alums of the WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz program took other, smaller parts with distinction: Kenneth Kellogg as Anna’s brother Rochefort, and Claudia Huckle, offering some dusky, lyrical singing as the page Smeton, whose hero-worship of Anna leads to his downfall when he’s caught in her room and believes that confessing to adultery will save her.
Ganassi was an honorable Seymour; if the role was a little big for her, she sang it with feeling and accuracy. In her first duet with Enrico, both singers sounded as if the music was wearing them out; but in her epic duet with Anna, when she confesses that she is Enrico’s next paramour, she responded to Radvanovsky’s searing regal fire with some pretty strong singing of her own in the unquestioned highlight of the evening.
As for Radvanovsky and rhythm, here’s why this is more than a technicality: In bel canto, you need to be clean and accurate in the rapid passages when notes fly up and down the staff or you risk losing dramatic climaxes. Radvanovsky didn’t have a lot of help from the pit; the conductor Antonello Allemandi, also in his company debut, sounded eager but not quite in control, either of the orchestra, which still needs some precision work in this repertoire, or of the singers and chorus, and there was a lot of smudging. But given the soprano’s clear, clarion, thrilling voice, muddy passages are all the more prominent, and it was extra-frustrating to lose the impact of places — after the first aria, and at the very end — that should have put exclamation points on a strong performance.
Which is perhaps to say that Radvanovsky is not yet a bel canto stylist. But she sang with clear fire, nailing note after note, and offered a strong character, a statuesque, classy woman who conveyed dignity in her strength and weakness. And she offered a generally auspicious beginning for the new season of a company that continues to ride out ups and downs as it settles in at the Kennedy Center.
continues at the Washington National Opera through Oct. 6.