NEW YORK—Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) died without knowing he had written the “Three Tudor Queens” trilogy. Actually, he had written three separate operas and didn’t even have the same singer in mind to star in all of them. Beverly Sills introduced the idea; she had performed the taxing roles at the New York City Opera during the 1970s.
This season, the Metropolitan Opera is giving Sondra Radvanovsky the opportunity to sing all three roles, and she has made a spectacular start with “Anna Bolena.”
King Henry VIII and his six marriages have been the subject of numerous films, novels, television dramatizations, and plays, most recently “Wolf Hall” on Broadway. Thomas Cromwell, who was a central figure in the latter, doesn’t even appear in “Anna Bolena.”
The title character is based on Anne Boleyn (the king’s second wife) and dramatizes the monarch’s machinations to move on to wife number three, Jane Seymour (Giovanna in the opera). Though the libretto by Felice Romani roughly follows the historical events, it takes significant liberties and makes Anne Boleyn a more sympathetic figure than historians do.
When the action begins, Henry/Enrico has already divorced Catherine of Aragon and has been married to Anna for three years. Unbeknownst to Anna, her lady-in-waiting Giovanna has been carrying on an affair with the king. The courtiers are in a gloomy mood and so is Anna, who has her page Mark Smeaton sing a song to lift everyone’s spirits. It serves only to remind the queen that she relinquished her true love, Lord Richard Percy, Earl of Northumberland (here Riccardo), in her determination to join the royal family. Meanwhile, Giovanna feels guilty about her secret relationship with Enrico.
The king had exiled Riccardo out of jealousy but now calls him back to England. This is part of a scheme to rid himself of both Anna and his former rival for her affections.
The page Smeaton also happens to be in love with Anna and has stolen a miniature portrait of her, which he decides to return surreptitiously. Anna’s brother Lord Rochefort (who suspects the king’s treachery) urges his sister to talk Riccardo into leaving England.
When Riccardo appears, it becomes clear that the two are still in love, though Anna still follows her brother’s recommended course of action. For some unclear reason, Riccardo pulls out his sword and Smeaton (who had been hiding in Anna’s chambers) thinks she is in danger and comes to her defense. The king suddenly appears and, seizing the portrait as proof of Anna’s adultery, has his wife arrested along with Rochefort, Riccardo, and Smeaton.
Act 2 begins with a wrenching scene, where Giovanna reveals to Anna that she is slated to become the next queen. Giovanna recommends that Anna plead guilty and provide grounds for the king to divorce her rather than have her executed. Anna expresses a range of emotions, from cursing Giovanna to finally excusing her conduct and placing the blame on Enrico.
Under torture, Smeaton claims to have had a love affair with Anna. Riccardo reveals that he married Anna before the king did, and that clinches the ruler’s resolve to have Anna and Riccardo executed along with Rochefort.
In the Tower of London, Anna sings a mad scene, but when Smeaton, Riccardo, and Rochefort are brought in, she regains her senses. She curses Enrico when she hears the wedding bells and cannons and heads off to her death.
Radvanovsky gives a riveting performance, musically and dramatically. She has a big voice but it is extraordinarily flexible, managing the trills while still soaring above the orchestra. The mad scene was a tour de force, as Donizetti intended.
As Giovanna, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is also terrific. Their scene together in Act 2 was riveting. Another mezzo, Tamara Mumford, was also excellent in the pants role of Smeaton. As one audience member exclaimed after the performance, “the ladies rocked.” It is also noteworthy that all three are Americans.
Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov makes an authoritative king and once again shows that he is expert at bel canto roles. Here, however, the other lead characters have the arias.
Tenor Stephen Costello, who was scheduled to play Riccardo, canceled because of illness and was replaced by Taylor Stayton. He started out tentatively but became impressive as the performance progressed. Stayton is strongest in the upper register and gave a fine account of his Act 2 aria “Vivi tu.”
Sir David McVicar directed, and visually the production (with sets by Robert Jones, costumes by Jenny Tiramani, and lighting by Paule Constable) is restrained but effective. McVicar is less flamboyant than some of the Met’s other directors, but his work usually conveys the intent of the opera’s creators, without imposing odd concepts, like moving the action to a post-holocaust era.
If the scenery didn’t win any applause, it is worth noting that the justifiably praised “Wolf Hall” basically didn’t have any.
The Met orchestra was as fine as one might expect under the baton of Marco Armiliato (who is also conducting the performances of “Il Trovatore”).
We have two more of Radvanovsky’s queens to look forward to.
“Anna Bolena” runs intermittently at the Met through Jan. 9; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.