Ladies and gentlemen of Washington DC and the nearby lands!

Shalva Mukeria, Sondra Radvanovsky, and Oren Gradus in Anna Bolena © Scott Suchman for WNO
Shalva Mukeria, Sondra Radvanovsky, and Oren Gradus in Anna Bolena
© Scott Suchman for WNO

If last fall you did not get a chance to journey to New York for the Met’s season-opening production of Anna Bolena – do not fret! Last Saturday the Washington National Opera opened its new season with a production of Anna Bolena (a little too bloody for a season opening if you ask me, but maybe that’s what attracts most people to opera these days).

Having dedicated his opera to the tragic downfall of Queen Anne (in the opera, Anna), Donizetti tells the story of a slandered queen, who falls prey to her husband the King’s (Enrico’s) wondering eye and her lady-in-waiting’s betrayal. The opera traces Anna’s descent into insanity up to the point of her execution, and ends in a pompous scene, introducing Jane Seymour (Giovanna Seymour) as the new queen of England.

Saturday night the WNO saw a truly grand season opening. It looked like the whole Kennedy Center brimmed with anticipation of Donizetti’s bloody drama. The fancy opening gala set up in the KC Terrace bled in all shades of red, and the free preview concert in the KC foyer, served up by a dynamic team of Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, intensified the opening night excitement. However, none of these preliminary festivities could quite prepare us for Stephen Lawless’ production of conceptual, exquisite theatricality and superb singing.

Even though heavily abused by stage directors all around the world today, the “theater within a theater” device was right on the money in Lawless’ production. Having set his Anna Bolena in the famous “wooden O” of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Lawless introduced Shakespeare’s idea of every monarch being just an actor on a stage. To prove Shakespeare’s (and his own) point, Lawless placed his royal leads on stage and his chorus (courtiers, priests and judges) in the theater boxes so they could be the audience to the drama and spectators to history. Much in the spirit of Shakespeare’s theater and the king’s passion for wild entertainment, the production was ornamented with a humorous pantomime, a masked deer fight and even two hairy dogs in the hunting scene.

Yet, the best of Lawless’ surprises was the dynamic cast of well-matched artists, who did not only look convincing in the period costumes created by Ingeborg Bernerth, but also sounded like bel canto naturals. Internationally acclaimed soprano Sondra Radvanovsky met the challenge of her part head-on (pun intended and well justified). Ravishing in the succession of flattering period dresses, she shone, delivering one number after another with the depth and increasing intensity of a Verdian expert, the breath control of a bel canto star, and the composure of an Olympic champion. Hers was not an Anna who asked for compassion. Hers was an Anna who deserved admiration. The more hopeless her situation became, the higher she rose in her ability to forgive and to hold her head high, even seconds before the execution.

The true vocal showstopper of the night was Anna and Giovanna’s epic duet “Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio”, which was served by Radvanovsky and her mezzo partner Sonia Ganassi with vocal security and emotional honesty. Built on the principle of contrasting music, this challenging duet, during which Giovanna confesses her betrayal and Anna forgives her, allowed each of the artists to show off the possibilities of their vocal ranges. Having “switched” registers, both singers had to come out of their comfort zones, which resulted in Radvanovsky luxuriating in dark mellow tones and Ganassi producing sheer atmospheric singing.

While most leads delivered an exceptional performance, a lot of great singing and acting came from the supporting role artists as well. With only a few lines to sing, lyric tenor Aaron Blake based his portrayal of Sir Hervey on thoroughly choreographed pantomime, coming across as the most terrifying figure of the show – the little man who rules the world. Bass Kenneth Kellogg was a dramatic Rochefort and contralto Claudia Huckle delivered Smeton’s love song with authenticity of a Renaissance musician. Even though bass Oren Gradus’ acting as Enrico was a lot more royal than was his singing, he showed a potential for producing great sound, which (with thorough faceting) could turn his voice into a beautiful instrument.

Had Donizettti been present in the WNO’s audience Saturday night, he would probably repeat the words that he wrote to his wife back in 1830, after the opera’s premiere. “A triumphal success, delirium – it seemed as though the public had gone mad. Everyone said that they could not remember ever being present at such a decided triumph!” Whether you are into bloody thrillers set to great music or prefer a lighter entertainment, Lawless’ Anna Bolena is not the show to be missed.

Thus, ladies and gentlemen from Washington DC and nearby lands, without further ado, rush to get the tickets to this production which runs through October 6th, and allow great music and drama open your opera season.

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