Anna Bolena at the Washington National Opera

 I recently attended the Washington National Opera’s production of Anna Bolena at the Kennedy Center. This bel canto opera is a part of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy—the others being Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux. Anna Bolena portrays the last days of Anne Boleyn. In particular, Donizetti shows Enrico (King Henry) falling in love with Giovanna (Jane Seymour), who is consumed with guilt over betraying Anna but desires a queen's fame and honor. Enrico and his courtier Sir Hervey successfully plot to catch Anna in a "compromising" position with her former lover, Percy; this machination allows Enrico to put Anna on trial for adultery and treason. Anna temporarily slips into insanity [Donizetti has a thing for mad scenes], thinking she is back at her countryside childhood home. However, Anna learns that Enrico has just married Giovanna, and the opera concludes with her condemning them and putting her head on the executioner's block. 

The night I saw the performance, WNO hosted a free lecture given by Saul Lilienstein beforehand. I learned that while there were MANY operas written during the bel canto period, most of them have not been performed much, if at all, since that time. Maria Callas was able to bring Anna Bolena back into popularity when she urged La Scala to put on a production in 1957 and starred in the titular role. Additionally, Lilienstein taught us a bit about Donizetti’s oeuvre. He wrote over seventy operas, and many of the earlier ones were written with particular singers in mind; as a result, those operas were more or less showcase pieces for those singers. We got to listen to clips of the music that illustrated this point--the orchestration for the music is fairly simple, while the singers' parts are the most complicated. Donizetti and many other Italian composers were different from their Northern counterparts. Lilienstein said that while composers like Beethoven and Brahms saw each work as its own masterpiece, Donizetti et al. treated their profession more like a business. They would recycle elements from their operas when taste or popularity dictated so. In particular, I noticed a few moments from Anna's mad scene that sounded like portions from the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor. Though interestingly enough, Donizetti altered Sir Henry Bishop's "Home, Sweet Home" for part of the mad scene. 

As for the artistic direction, I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag. The director, Stephen Lawless, in his program notes, writes that the stage was designed to look like the stage of the Globe Theatre--not only a nod to the general time period, but also to emphasize the court's scrutiny of Anna. Throughout the production, courtiers and ladies-in-waiting observed and eavesdropped on the action from the galleries. The paneled walls moved throughout the production to show the pressure on Anna, but also to allow others to easily swarm in on her. I also liked the staging of a deer hunt--the courtiers donned antlered deer skull masks as they rotated through the galleries. Also interesting was the alignment of Anna's plight with Enrico's transformation from "man wearing Renaissance Festival attire while feasting on turkey legs" to the glittering Holbein version depicted in history books. 

Things I wasn't too keen on: First, the director decided to have Elizabeth I be present during the opera. This character wasn't originally written in, but Lawless thought that as the rest of the Trilogy takes place during her reign, having her character in this one would perhaps explain her choice not to marry. While it was an interesting idea, I thought the character was rather distracting--her appearances just seemed unnecessary (such as playing in the throne room, only to be terrified upon discovering the sword used for Anna's execution) and contrived (to emphasize the breakdown of Enrico and Anna's marriage, Elizabeth literally becomes the center of a tug of war between Anna and Enrico). Also, her dress was bright, shining gold brocade--extremely distracting when most of the adults were wearing more muted colors. Secondly, during the overture, captions explaining the Henry the VIII marriage drama were projected onto a red curtain, and actors pantomimed his succession of wives. While it was sort of humorous, and sort of foreshadowed Giovanna's desire for "fama," it didn't seem to set the right tone for this story.

(For photographs of the set and costumes, click here. These pictures, taken by photographer Karen Almond, are from the Dallas Opera's performances a few years ago. According to the Washington National Opera's website, the Dallas Opera "owns" this production.)

Finally, Sondra Radvanovsky starred as Anna Bolena, and she was amazing. Her voice is crisp, clear, and perfect for coloratura--I was extremely impressed by her vocal control. Sonia Ganassi was a very nuanced Giovanna, and the duet she sings with Anna ("Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio"), in which she confesses she is the king's lover and Anna forgives her, was outstanding. Another character who really stood out for me was Sir Hervey. Aaron Blake played this courtier as sleazily as one can while wearing what looked like a red jumpsuit with an inflated codpiece. 

The music, other than the overture and the Anna/Giovanna duet, wasn't particularly memorable, though I suppose that probably had to do with the tendency of that time period to tailor operas as backdrops for particular singers. The production on the whole, however, was enjoyable. And I really appreciate that the Kennedy Center has fun with the operas. They've been selling themed drinks pre-show and during intermission; for Anna Bolena, it was lavender Pimm's Cup.

A composite of scenes from the WNO production: 

I love the overture:

"Sul suo capo":
This clip is of the legendary Joan Sutherland and Judith Forst in the Canadian Opera Company's 1984 production