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'Anna Bolena' raises its head at Washington National Opera

'Anna Bolena' raises its head at Washington National Opera
There’s nothing like those Tudors and their affairs to provide gripping, juicy drama, as the recent Showtime series reconfirmed.

Donizetti found enough fodder in the intrigues of that royal court to fashion a trilogy of vivid operas in the 1830s: “Maria Stuarda” (staged by the late Baltimore Opera Company in 2007), “Roberto Devereux” (this seems to get the least attention these days) and “Anna Bolena.”

The latter, returning to the Washington National Opera repertoire after an absence of 19 years, is quite the gem.

With a fine libretto by Felice Romani, who lightly applied a seasoning of historic and poetic license, the work tells the sad tale of Anne Boelyn, the queen destined for the block after Henry VIII finds her lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour more appealing.

Donizetti’s score intensifies the familiar story through remarkable melodic richness and refined orchestral coloring.

The WNO production, which comes from the Dallas Opera and is directed by Stephen Lawless, starts off on a ...

glaring note — a dreadful pantomime that shows Henry VIII’s roving eye. In case anyone misses the point, there’s a projected text, too, explaining the back-story. Heads should roll over that shtick.

Things largely improve from there. The action flows swiftly on Benoit Dugardyn’s set, which gets more interesting as the opera progresses.

Imposing wooden walls move about quickly to create fresh scenes, at one point, closing in on Seymour as she realizes just how trapped she is by her love for the king, her friendship with the queen.

Balconies that frame the stage provide perches for the chorus of courtiers to look down on the messy lives and loves of the royals.

Sondra Radvanovsky tears into the taxing title role, sending an electric current through the music and effectively conveying Anna’s pride and vulnerability.

The soprano produces a wonderfully dark, warm sound, quite mezzo-like in tint. When Donizetti sends a melodic line into the stratosphere, Radvanovsky soars freely and excitingly; top notes have terrific fire.

Intonation may droop a little here and there, and a pianissimo dynamic level may be in short supply, but the visceral quality of the singing is something to savor. The soprano reaches an affecting peak in Anna’s prayer aria in the last scene (Donizetti based the melody anachronistically, but poignantly, on “Home, Sweet Home”).

As Seymour, Sonia Ganassi produces a ripe, well-focused tone and infuses her phrasing with abundant passion. She and Radvanovsky achieve show-stopping vocalism in their big Act 2 duet.

Shalva Mukeria, as Anna’s former love Percy, sings with admirable style and considerable sweetness of tone. Oren Gradus has the burly size and acting flair for the king; the voice isn’t exactly regal in volume or tone, but it is used vividly.

Claudia Huckle’s plummy contralto and beautifully shaded phrasing are matched by refined acting in the role trouser role of Smeton, the queen’s page. Kenneth Kellogg as Anna’s brother, Lord Rochefort, and Aaron Blake, as the smarmy Sir Hervey complete the cast ably.

The chorus shines. The women of the ensemble produce an especially impressive blend and tenderness in the scene where they comment on the sight of the imprisoned Anna. There is a wonderful visual moment here when the queen approaches a kneeler and assumes the position not of a supplicant, but of someone about to be beheaded, arms outstretched (one of the director's most inspired touches).

Conductor Antonello Allemandi reveals a sensitive, rhythmically flexible touch. The orchestra, which has steadily emerged as one of the company’s most reliable assets, responds with playing of great finesse and lyrical warmth.

The gentle flute and strings passage at start of the queen's bedchamber scene is but one example of how much attention is paid, in telling fashion, by conductor and musicians to the subtler side of Donizetti's finely wrought score.

Performances continue through Oct. 6 at the Kennedy Center.

PHOTOS BY SCOTT SUCHMAN

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