Chicago Opera Review: ANNA BOLENA (Lyric Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on December 11, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


With so much filmed and written about the six wives of Henry VIII, the Tudor period is perhaps one of the most familiar eras in English history. Yet Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena manages to give us a fresh perspective by focusing on the transition between Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, Henry’s second and third wives. Since Henry comes across as a mostly ill-tempered brute, we are left to wonder how and why Jane could actually be in love with him. Anne, on the other hand, is a wonderfully complex character who questions her own motives. Why did she abandon her first love, Lord Percy, in order to marry the king? Was it for power?


Donizetti composed the score for Anna Bolena in 1830 to a libretto by Felice Romani based on Ippolito Pindemonte’s Enrico VIII ossia Anna Bolena and Alessandro Pepoli’s Anna Bolena. It is the second opera of Donizetti’s Tudor tetralogy, which also includes Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux. Since these other three all prominently feature Queen Elizabeth, it is fitting that director Kevin Newbury’s production alludes to this connection and supplies a unifying link by inventing a role for the young princess. Created jointly for Lyric Opera of Chicago and Minnesota Opera, it premiered in Minneapolis back in 2012.

Lyric Opera Presents "Anna Bolena"

Anna Bolena’s one and only previous production at Lyric opera occurred in 1985 with Dame Joan Sutherland singing the title role. If Sutherland was then at the end of a long and distinguished career, Sondra Radvanovsky, the present Anna Bolena, is at the pinnacle of success. Born in nearby Berwyn, IL, the 45-year-old soprano is an expert interpreter of Donizetti’s Tudor queen roles, which she will continue performing at the Metropolitan Opera in upcoming seasons. Anna Bolena showcases Radvanovsky’s extraordinary vocal range, technical mastery, and formidable acting.


Although Radvanovsky is onstage almost constantly, it is during her long exchange at the beginning of Act II with mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Jane Seymour that she impresses most. Both singers dazzlingly display their artistic virtuosity with voices that shimmer and scintillate agilely along Donizetti’s lustrous melodic lines and spectacular coloratura.


Tenor Bryan Hymel does not disappoint in his Lyric debut as Lord Percy, sometime lover to Anne Boleyn. Hymel’s heartfelt acting and sonorous voice manage to upstage John Relyea’s King Henry VIII. Relyea acquits himself beautifully in terms of singing, but his one-dimensional acting leaves much to be desired.


Mr. Newbury heightens the drama of the story in a number of interesting ways. Perhaps most unique is the aforementioned creation of a non-speaking role for the child Elizabeth, Anne’s daughter and future queen. Another brilliant touch is the central set piece comprising a four-poster bed on one side and two thrones on the other, neatly illustrating the connection between sex and power in Henry’s household.


Set designer Neil Patel opts for an interesting mix of realism and abstraction. Apart from the aforementioned bed/throne prop, most of the set consists not of a scenic backdrop, which is left blank, but of a massive wooden ceiling. Various walls, columns and apses are raised and lowered from it as needed, confining or freeing cast members’ movement. Despite not being painted anything like the Gothic churches found in Tudor London, Patel’s apses do adequately convey a sense of the sacred. Jessica Jahn’s striking costume design captures much of the sartorial diversity of the period, from the sober dress of the king’s privy councilors to the resplendent blue gown worn by Radvanovsky.


The production could have used more rehearsal before opening night: Mezzo soprano Kelley O’Connor sang well, but her timing was slightly off as the young page, Smeton; and there were some sour notes in the orchestra, and fairly major lighting problems. There is no reason to believe that these issues cannot be corrected later in the run. Lyric Opera’s Anna Bolena is truly a production fit for a queen.

09_John_Relyea_Sondra_Radvanovsky_ANNA_BOLENA_LYR141203_462_cTodd_Rosenbergphotos by Todd Rosenberg

Anna Bolena
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
scheduled to end on January 16, 2015
for tickets, call 312.827.5600
or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment }

Helen Madden January 17, 2015 at 5:42 am

We saw the final production of this fabulous opera. We loved every moment and think Jamie Barton was absolutely magnificent in the role of Jane. We were sorry that Sondra was not well but did her best. Her understudy was terrific. We would love to know more about little Elizabeth. Is she a daughter of one of the cast members or did she play the child in Butterfly? We saw Butterfly with the little boy, son of two of the opera stars. But know there was a girl playing the role also. The scenery was outstanding, thank you for such a lovely production.

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