BWW Review: Sondra Radvanovsky Reigns Supreme in the COC's ANNA BOLENA
The title role is one of the most challenging soprano roles in the repertoire. Lucky for the Canadian Opera Company, they have one of the world's greatest sopranos leading their cast - Ms. Sondra Radvanovsky.
Donizetti's ANNA BOLENA is based on the final days of Anne Boleyn, the second of King Henry VIII's six wives. Requiring a male heir to sustain the Tudor bloodline, Anne is under pressure to produce a son for Henry. When years pass with no luck, Henry starts looking elsewhere - specifically to Anne's gentlewoman, Jane Seymour. This is where the opera begins.
(You'll notice that moving forward I will use the Italian names provided in the opera's libretto.)
Anna Bolena (Sondra Radvanovsky) is feeling anxious at the rising tension between her and her husband, King Enrico VIII (Christian Van Horn) - relying on the comfort of her friendship with Giovanna Seymour (Keri Alkema). Unknown to Anna, Giovanna has developed a relationship with the King - and the King has fallen passionately in love with Giovanna.
Director Stephen Lawless has placed his production in a Globe Theatre-inspired set; one half of the globe on stage framing the action - the other half occupied by the audience, who become spectators to Anna's fate. The versatile set is designed by the late Benoit Dugardyn, with moving walls that are designed to expose certain characters and trap others. The dramatic Act I finale in Anna's bedroom becomes a small intimate space, contrasting directly with the vast, lonely space seen in the opera's finale as Anna slips in and out of delirium. Reinhard Traub echoes this vision in his striking lighting design, incorporating flood lights that cast intriguing silhouettes against the walls of the set - adding again to this theme of "exposing" the characters within the drama.
The COC Orchestra sounds magnificent in this piece. Conductor Corrado Rovaris leads the orchestra through some surprisingly brisk, cinematic tempos - the final bars of the big choral scenes seemed unusually quick, almost running away from the cast. This was also the case with Giovanna's section in the Act II duet. Luckily, Alkema is more than skilled enough to keep up, flying through the coloratura as she practically gripped the walls for support. Apart from these moments, the orchestra produces an extraordinary, lush sound - laying a great foundation for the singers to flourish overtop.
What makes this opera so difficult for the vocalists is the sheer flexibility required to sing it. You must have shattering high notes but also the ability to produce beautifully-crafted high pianos. You need to be able to glide through endless coloratura passages, but also support the voice through long, legato lines. It's not easy - especially for the women singing Anna and Giovanna.
The role of Giovanna, usually sung by a mezzo-soprano, is sung by the sensational American Soprano Keri Alkema. Alkema has a powerful, thunderous sound and a remarkably big range. With luminous stage presence, her Giovanna is strong. Scared? yes - but definitely not weak. Alkema's voice also complements Radvanovsky's extremely well, producing a show-stopping duet at the top of Act II.
As the opera's main villain, Van Horn plays a sultry Enrico. Completing the roster of big-voiced talent in this production, Van Horn's booming bass-baritone is authoritative on its own, but his striking height (he must be at least 6'3"), allows him to physically loom over his subjects in every interaction.
Tenor Bruce Sledge sings the role of Percy - and while his acting leaves a lot to be desired, his voice is well-suited to bel canto, projecting far into the hall as he grounds himself for each of his ringing high notes. Allyson McHardy brings exceptional vocals to Smeton, the young musician in love with the queen. Her aria near the end of the first act is exquisite - showcasing her dynamic range and ease in coloratura. Hervey, a snake-like character, slinking around the stage as the King's personal spy, is played by the young tenor Jonathan Johnson. Johnson's smooth voice is well-crafted and very pleasing to the ear.
But the star of the show, and really of the entire COC 2017/2018 season, is soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. She has been lovingly named the "queen of bel canto" and after witnessing one magical performance of ANNA BOLENA, I understand why.
Radvanovsky is a living legend, able to colour her voice with any committed emotion her character is experiencing. She feels deeply as she sings and it comes through her voice, as well as her body. You'll be shaken in your seat by the explosive power of her high notes before being brought to tears by her signature, focused pianissimos. There are truly no words to describe this magnificent performance - it is something you must see live to fully understand.
Radvanovsky's star power makes an already exceptional opera, outstanding. This is the must-see opera of the season in Toronto. Do whatever you can to get a ticket as the run will most likely sell-out - especially once people start hearing the raves about this amazing cast.
The Canadian Opera Company's ANNA BOLENA is on stage now through May 26th at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.coc.ca/productions/13097
(main photo credit: Michael Cooper)