Radvanovsky leads off Met’s Donizetti triptych with a memorable “Anna Bolena”

September 28, 2015
By Eric C. Simpson
Sondra Radvanovsky stars in the title role of Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Sondra Radvanovsky stars in the title role of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

When a singer is as well established as Sondra Radvanovsky, it is dangerous–however tempting–to identify her latest performance as “career-defining.” This, of course, is a soprano who has starred at the Metropolitan Opera as Norma, Tosca, Aida, Leonora, Elvira, and many others, not to mention her many international engagements.

But it is hard to think of her Saturday matinee performance in the title role of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena as anything else. Since 2011, Anna Netrebko and Joyce DiDonato have done star turns in inaugurating the title roles of Bolena and Maria Stuarda at the Met. With “Elisabetta” in the Met premiere of Roberto Devereux slated for this spring, Radvanovsky is embarking on the company’s first tour of the composer’s three Tudor queens, and this first installment was an absolutely spectacular start.

At the beginning of the first act some of her onsets weren’t registering perfectly, and she did not sound entirely secure in her coloratura. These little problems fell away quickly, making room for a gymnastic vocal virtuosity and vast dramatic depth. In her lyrical singing, there was a supple, velvety quality to her tone. She flashed searing high notes far above the staff, and each cabaletta she rattled off was a thrill, not least of all the closing “Coppia iniqua.”

She also traced a compelling dramatic arc ornamented with individual moments of theatrical beauty. The most moving of these was in the first scene of act two: imprisoned in the Tower, she strains every nerve to keep her composure in front of her attendant ladies, but collapses the moment they leave, overcome by her sorrow and sudden isolation.

Her mad scene, recalling her childhood home while awaiting her turn on the scaffold, was transfixing. Radvanovsky took a breathtaking journey through the aria, adding adventurous but tasteful ornamentation and showing extraordinary control of her extraordinary voice: floating pianissimos, blazing top notes, long, breathing phrases. When performed with this level of intensity and skill, this mad scene can stand next to just about any in the bel canto canon.

Jamie Barton showed a hard edge in some of her early work as Jane (“Giovanna”) Seymour, but she hit her stride by the time the crucial Act II duet with Boleyn came around, raising the emotional stakes for her and her counterpart to dizzying heights. There was urgent passion in her singing, and blooming sighs in her pleas for forgiveness, making this duet the electric highlight that it should be in every performance of this piece.

The rest of the cast was drawn mostly from the one that populated the first Met performances in 2011. Stephen Costello has progressed somewhat since his last turn as Percy, his slow start (a common theme in this matinee) notwithstanding. By the time he was called on to sing his mournful prison aria “Vivi tu, te ne scongiuro,” he was sustaining a golden, creamy tone. That he missed a high note or two in the cabaletta detracted little from the soaring nobility of his portrayal.

The role of Henry VIII sat a little low for Ildar Abdrazakov, who nonetheless relished his chance at imperious villainy, looking for all the world as though he had strutted out of a Holbein portrait. He flashed a wicked grin when a chorus of cheeky boo-birds greeted him at the curtain call.

Tamara Mumford was the strongest standout of the returning cast members, playing the heartsick young page Smeaton with touching (and ultimately tragic) sincerity. For a mezzo in a trouser role, her voice is unusually dark, giving her a lovely, warm warble that was perfect for her enchanting court serenade near the top of Act I.

Marco Armiliato, unfortunately, was less alert than he had been in Friday’s Trovatore. Stretches of the second act became painfully sluggish, and while there were no outright disasters of ensemble, a general fuzziness of articulation in the orchestra did not give the impression of precision. The brief duel between Smeaton and Percy, a crucial point in the opera’s dramatic arc, received a wimpy accompaniment.

A few theatrical touches have been altered slightly since the 2011 debut of this David McVicar staging. In her final appearance, the condemned queen now wears a plain white shift, and in the early part of the scene her handmaids busy themselves shearing off her hair to expose her neck for the headsman. Instead of grasping her braid as she dashes off to the block, Radvanovsky kneels to be blindfolded, clearly frightened to be led away to her fate.

In general, though, the feel of this production has changed little; if anything, the energetic performances of this cast make it feel more visceral. Presenting handsome costumes and set details without seeming extravagant, the McVicar staging might not be a particularly challenging one for the audience, but it allows the actors and the drama of the score to be the focus. This is a formidable first incarnation for this long-overlooked opera, and one we’ll hopefully get to see more frequently as the piece earns a place in the Met’s repertory.

Anna Bolena runs through January 9 at the Metropolitan Opera. metopera.org

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