David McVicar’s production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena resembles his Maria Stuarda: there is a lot of gray and dull brown and white, with splashes of bright red. The red is hard to miss. Anna is wearing it for a while, and then at the beginning of Act II the red has moved to the bed in the room where Anna and Giovanna have their conversation, and by the time Giovanna is pleading with Henry (for consistency’s sake, I suppose I should refer to him as Enrico, but I can type Henry more times in a row without mistakes, so Henry he is) for Anna’s life she (Giovanna) is wearing a red dress, and the last time we see Anna she is wearing white – if red means you are the focus of Henry’s attention, for good or bad, Anna has escaped. The royal buck has been passed.
The trees, too, that descended from above like prison bars for Mary Stuart are back, this time arriving before the hunting scene in Act I, where Anna meets the long-lost Percy again and Henry’s dark plans vis-a-vis his wife begin to unfold. (This is silly, but I never realized that Henry invited Percy back on purpose to entrap Anna – I always figured he just showed up, because this is the kind of thing one expects in a Donizetti opera. Also, speaking of things that happen in Donizetti operas: I guess we should all expect that Anna would go mad for about fifteen minutes toward the end of Act II. I remember reading somewhere that Donizetti originally had her collapsing then and dying of grief at the end but someone was like – dude, everyone knows what happens.)
Also, the way that exteriors become interiors, and the same doors or walls that place the characters inside at one point render them outside at another is effective. There is no safe interior of privacy or exterior of escape.
In terms of the performance, this one hit its stride in the second act. One of the best bits in this was the confrontation scene between Anna (Sondra Radvanovsky) and Giovanna (Jamie Barton), where the latter admits she is in love with Henry and Anna forgives her. This is my favorite part of the opera to begin with, and Radvanovsky and Barton nailed it – that unison high note at the end was fantastic. In general, I had been looking forward to hearing Jamie Barton, and I wasn’t disappointed. The scene with Henry in Act I was good – the intonation seemed off to me here and there, but I wasn’t sure whether that was Barton or Ildar Abdrazakov – but the scene in the second act where Giovanna confronts Henry and pleads for Anne’s life was great.
I was of two minds about tenor Stephen Costello (Percy) when I first heard him – he sounded a little strained right off, but once warmed up, things improved markedly, e.g. in the scene with Anna where Smeaton is watching and then they all get caught and Henry gloats and the whole court files in to have a look (is it just me, or does this scene bear a sort of family resemblance to that part in Return of the Jedi where Leia has just freed Han from the carbonite in Jabba’s palace, and they think they’re safe, and then the wall rises up ominously and there is Jabba with all his hangers-on, laughing at them?). There were moments in his last aria, when Percy and Rochefort are in prison together, where some of the higher notes were not as loud or powerful as I expected, particularly toward the end, but as far as lyrical tenor singing goes, it wasn’t bad.
I had never heard Sondra Radvanovsky live before, and this was as exciting as I expected – she’s got those brilliant steely (in a good way ) high notes that are both bright and powerful (several of them ended more quickly than I expected, e.g. the one at the end of Act I that seems to move into a sob or cry, and ditto at the very end of “coppia iniqua” in the last scene, where the sound stops as abruptly as Anna’s life is about to); there is also plenty of subtlety – “piangete voi” in the final scene was edge-of-the-seat powerful. One is glad that one has already purchased tickets for Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda later this season. And by “one” I of course mean ME.