American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who’s been a constant on the Lyric Opera calendar in recent years, is the reason to see Anna Bolena, playing now through mid-January. There is something feral and dangerous in her sound, or the way she wields it, flooring through the wild Donizettian crescendi and then peeling back into barely audible whimpers. Sometimes she seems on the brink of collapse, as if her lungs barely have enough steam left to power her through yet another aria, but her highs soar so high that even the numbers that are difficult to listen to seem to express the pathos of the collapsing monarch instead of singerly unevenness. The truth is, with Radvanovsky, it’s hard to separate the feat of singing from her embodiment of the Queen.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Anna Bolena) © Todd Rosenberg | Lyric Opera
Sondra Radvanovsky (Anna Bolena)
© Todd Rosenberg | Lyric Opera

Is it even acting, when the most indelible memory from the night is of the frantic webs she spins with her voice in the mad scene that closes the opera? Donizetti’s music deploys blocks of melody, units of regimented phrase, over which the more continuous and elaborate vocal lines twist and pull. Radvanovsky sings such that the breath of the phrase seems barely to feel the tugs of consonants as it blooms and ebbs, never struggling against the orchestra’s frame but at ease within it. And no one could ask for a more invested singer in this role; her face would be comically melodramatic if it weren’t so unrelentingly terrifying.

Radvanovsky is the reason to go, but the production provides plenty of other reasons to stay, with the rest of the main cast: Jamie Barton as Jane Seymour; Bryan Hymel as Lord Richard Percy, the Queen’s former and returned lover; Kelley O’Connor as the court musician Smeton; and John Relyea as the King. There were some weak points on opening night, but who cares? Each voice had a distinct character that seemed to bleed inescapably into the alternately brooding, proud and fretful personas that provide the work’s emotional texture.

Jamie Barton (Giovanna Seymour) and John Relyea (Enrico VIII) © Todd Rosenberg | Lyric Opera
Jamie Barton (Giovanna Seymour) and John Relyea (Enrico VIII)
© Todd Rosenberg | Lyric Opera

I loved Kelley O’Connor’s Smeton, or perhaps just loved her – it’s hard to say, since I can’t point to any one cause. It wasn’t exactly her movement that stood out, nor the vocal performance (some early arpeggios were noticeably rough), but rather a combination perhaps of poise and the color of her voice that made her an arrestingly fetching presence. Jamie Barton, by contrast, was flawless in execution but several notches too low on the intensity scale. The mad Queen’s competition was too calm, perhaps, for someone trysting with the royals, although her blend with the orchestra and the consistency of her sound provided balance and structure to the opera’s overall sound. There was, however, one “gloria!” that blasted out into the hall, shockingly bright and full, that snapped many a head around me to attention. It’s a shame Barton didn’t distribute some of that intensity across the role.

Bryan Hymel and John Relyea outdid themselves. The tenor started shakily but was determined; there was the occasional moment in the first act in which one felt a streak of sunlight suddenly piercing the clouds. But in Act II Hymel grew stronger and more confident, and the moments of sunlight came more often, such that the tenor ended the night with stretches of sheer radiance.

Relyea’s famously rich bass was in full evidence this night. He has that kind of low growled sound that seems to describe a vast space around which the sound of the voice resonates; it almost doesn’t make sense that it comes from a single human person. But the distinctness of the four primary voices from one another made for some odd vocal couplings. You can’t really say that Relyea and Barton or Hymel and Radvanovsky ever blended in their duets, though for the purposes of the drama, the sound of resistant singularity rather than smooth homogeneity wasn’t necessarily a loss.

Bryan Hymel (Lord Percy) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Anna Bolena) © Todd Rosenberg | Lyric Opera
Bryan Hymel (Lord Percy) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Anna Bolena)
© Todd Rosenberg | Lyric Opera

One hopes that, as the run goes on, the rough patches will be worked over to reach the high levels of singing already evident on the first night. Sadly, nothing will be done about the conceptually empty set, more a set of postmodern kneejerk reactions than a coherent idea. A period ceiling and costumes clash against a color-blocked backdrop; mechanized Jenga pieces descend as if part of a gigantic game of Whack-A-Tudor; an inconsequential staircase gets pushed around a little. If the set were ugly it would at least be something, but it is neither that nor beautiful nor sensical. I suppose it matters as much to the experience of Donizetti’s opera as historical fact, which is to say not very much. But why not take this as an opportunity to try a strong idea and go for something memorable?