Anna Bolena: saving the best for last

Sondra Radvanovsky is the story.

Anna Bolena

Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena in the Washington National Opera’s production of Anna Bolena, 2012. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

There is no better singing in an opera in Toronto than what you’ll hear if you go see Anna Bolena with the Canadian Opera Company, and she’s not the only great voice.

I can talk about the number of times I was moved to tears. (I’m of a generation reared to believe guys aren’t supposed to cry openly, and opera is one of the safe places for me to let it out: and I do)

How many? Nine times, nine different places in the opera. Not all of them were Sondra’s doing, although by 6 or 7 I was thoroughly tenderized for the emotional last scenes.

Spoiler alert: they’re all dead. But that’s because this is an opera based on historical figures who died hundreds of years ago. Some of the characters in the opera are to be executed although I won’t tell you whether we see anyone die or not.

Did I mention that there are some amazing talents in this production?

Sondra isn’t just a great singer but also an amazing actor. From time to time she blind-sides me with a facial expression or an interpretive choice that moves me very much. Sondra plays Anna, aka Anne Boleyn. If you just arrived in Toronto or haven’t been paying attention, Radvanovsky is a world-famous star who happens to have blessed us by choosing to live in the GTA, and choosing to make herself available. Lucky us!

There’s another wonderful soprano role in this opera, namely Jane Seymour, aka Giovanna aka Seymour, portrayed by Keri Alkema. Alkema was a remarkable Tosca last year (unique intelligence in her portrayal) and a fabulous Vitellia in 2013. She makes an intriguing contrast to Radvanovsky, a worthy addition to the ensemble.

While you might believe the show is built around Radvanovsky because she’s such a megastar, it’s not so. Yes Anna Bolena is largely composed around the title character. But for most of this opera, the key character is King Henry the Eighth aka Enrico, in the big physical presence of Christian Van Horn. While he might be taller than anyone else in the show, he is often lounging in a chair while being pushed about the stage. No wonder he gets fat later in life, although at this point he’s still a handsome figure of a man. He’s also a scary piece of work who always gets his way, and has no scruple about who might get hurt.


From left, Allyson McHardy is a boyish Smeton, Christian Van Horn as Enrico VIII reclines centre and Jonathan Johnson as Hervey, far right in red (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Tenor Bruce Sledge is Ricccardo (Richard) Percy, once betrothed to Anna and still in love with her, singing some of the prettiest music of the night. Jonathan Johnson is Hervey, who is the ears and eyes of the King, in a slippery portrayal that had some people hissing at the curtain call: which tells you he did a great job.

Allyson McHardy looks like a handsome boy when she wears the right sort of wig in the aptly named role of Smeton, a young man who is indeed smitten: with Anna. McHardy’s luscious voice reminds you of her gender whenever she starts singing.

And so the last two Canadian Opera Company productions have now opened. Two weeks ago they gave us the premiere of The Nightingale & other short fables, a production where the visuals in Robert Lepage’s concept take you back to childhood in a series of departures from usual practice in an opera house. Today it was time for something more normal, namely opera relying upon the singing voice & musicianship in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, the second Donizetti opera of the season. Depending on what you like in an opera, they’ve saved the best for last. While I am a total sucker for the visuals in The Nightingale, a perfect first opera, a wonderful production for children, I’d have to crown Anna Bolena the best thing I’ve seen from the COC all year.

This is Stephen Lawless’s production, to complete his take on Donizetti’s Elizabethan trilogy presented in recent years. We had Roberto Devereux also starring Radvanovsky in 2014 and Maria Stuarda in 2010. Lawless & his set designer Benoit Dugardyn remind us of the Elizabethan theatre in their staging concept. That we are looking at a playing area enclosed as though it were the Globe Theatre makes sense when we see that the King, his women (Anna & Jane) and the courtiers all thrust into a kind of performance role, their every word scrutinized and judged. We watch from our side across centuries while another audience of his contemporaries onstage looks upon the courtiers & the King, sometimes straining to hear what’s being said, voyeurs in the lives of the great & powerful: just like us.


Notice the resemblance to the Globe Theatre in Benoit Dugardyn’s design for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Anna Bolena, 2018. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Like the Lepage show it’s a great piece of theatre, although Lawless is just one piece of what makes Anna Bolena so good. Conductor Corrado Rovaris led a taut reading, the COC Orchestra shining brightly throughout, while the COC chorus were fascinating both for their musical contribution but also in their regular visits upstage as that mysterious audience.

We even see the young Elizabeth, a non-singing role.

Anna Bolena continues until May 26th at the Four Seasons Centre.

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5 Responses to Anna Bolena: saving the best for last

  1. Pablito says:

    I agree with you. I saw Radvanovsky’s Anna B at the Met two years ago and she made me cry. I was afraid the emotional impact would be lost the second time. Not so. The Met production was very good, but the COC’s was in many ways superior. Lighting, acting, attention to detail, and of course the voices.

    • barczablog says:

      Thank you for sharing! I think a big part of the excellence is the tiny opera house, which makes any voice sound good, and a great one sound amazing. I love sitting close because her acting is so superb. I don’t think she gets enough credit.

  2. Pingback: Cry for me | barczablog

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