In Anna Bolena, Sondra Radvanovsky plays a queen who loses the English crown. But with this première performance, the American soprano made her way toward an entirely different coronation: to become the first singer in the Metropolitan Opera's history to play three of Donizetti's Tudor Queens (Elizabeth I also appears in Il castello di Kenilworth). A house favorite for several years, Radvanovsky appeared up to the task. Despite the extraordinary demands of this role, she was flawless.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Anna Bolena) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Sondra Radvanovsky (Anna Bolena)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Donizetti’s incarnation of Anne Boleyn bears few traces of the woman often portrayed as a lascivious French courtesan who woos King Henry VIII into an act of adultery. Radvanovsky relished the virtuous character as written. Her Boleyn was tormented and pure.

The Met was late to embrace Anna Bolena. Donizetti’s early claim to fame debuted with this same David McVicar production just four years ago. However, its tardiness was offset by commitment. Anna Bolena opened the 2011 season with resident prima donna Anna Netrebko in the title role and broadcast “on more than 2,000 screens in 70 countries across the globe” as a Live in HD production. Likewise, the opera was given top billing this season, as a queenmaking opportunity for Ms Radvanovsky.

The lady-in-waiting Giovanna Seymour, played by Jamie Barton, proved a deserving successor to the crown (doomed as it was). The Met announced only a month ago that Barton would replace Elīna Garanča in the role. Barton was an obvious choice; she sounded still well-rehearsed after singing the part with Radvanovsky earlier this year at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Few criticisms could be made of this excellent cast. Indeed, if anything dimmed their brilliance, it was the visual aesthetics of the production. Set in monotonous, dark and dingy interiors, Robert Jones’ limited color palettes (black, white and red) and unimaginative period sets cast a pall over the onstage action. Perhaps they were intended to reflect a sense of impending doom for both Anna and Giovanna. But Donizetti's score requires little assistance in making that point known.

Jamie Barton (Giovanna) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Anna) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Jamie Barton (Giovanna) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Anna)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Colors emerged, instead, from the musicians. Under the baton of Marco Armiliato, the Met Orchestra did a fine job conveying the shifting moods of those given the “fatal king’s gift”. Armiliato’s conducting, though mostly steady, felt a bit rushed at times. This, combined with meticulous cutoffs, sometimes produced a jerky feel.

Felice Romani’s libretto holds up heavy and strong today. The bleakness of this production tended to emphasize the feelings of resignation voiced by Henry’s current and future queen. Radvanovsky handled lines like “my only hope lies in heaven” with a ghostly beauty that sounded as though she may deliberately fade away. Always in control, Radvanovsky pierced such remote, otherworldly passages with bracing high notes that were nearly indistinguishable from a pure scream. The madness of her "Coppia Iniqua" was one of isolation. Before her beheading, she permitted the audience a final glimpse inside her mind – to recall a tranquil birthplace and glorious wedding day – before her final release to the heavens.

Ildar Abdrazakov (Henry VIII) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Ildar Abdrazakov (Henry VIII)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
The only non-American principal on stage, Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov was a carryover from the Met’s 2011 staging. He was a commanding Henry VIII – virile almost to the point of irony (for a king with notorious fertility problems). Whereas the sounds of other singers were sometimes swallowed as they moved into the Met’s cavernous upstage, Abdrazakov’s voice was inexhaustibly lavish in both tone and emotion.

Tenor Stephen Costello required a little warming up in his role of Percy. During Act I, he had a distant quality, as though he were singing offstage. But after intermission, his talents came into sharper focus. His rendition of the “Vivi tu” aria justified the Met’s decision to bring him back to the role, though he did experience an unfortunate vocal crack at its conclusion.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford was a standout in this performance. She brought bel canto sweetness and light to the pants role of Smeton – a most welcome reprieve in an otherwise brooding atmosphere.

Mr McVicar is charged with directing the entire Tudor Queens Trilogy at the Met this season. Let’s hope he has more insight to offer in Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux. In any case: with Ms Radvanovsky on the throne, we can remain optimistic.

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