The Dallas Opera opened its second production of the season at the Winspear Opera House on Friday. Anna Bolena is Donizetti’s 1830 retelling of the life of the ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII. Helen of Troy may have started a war and launched a thousand ships, but Anne Boleyn was responsible for the break with Rome, founding of the Church of England and Henry declaring himself the equivalent of the Pope. Of course, she lost her head in the end.
As they say, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. But her revenge was sweet. Her daughter, who became Good Queen Bess (Elizabeth I), ruled for almost 50 years; considerably longer than Henry himself.
In 2005, Dallas Opera launched a new production of the cycle of three Donizetti operas based on Tudor queens. This one, Anna Bolena, is the last of the three to be produced, although historically, Anna Bolena is the first in the series. The others are Maria Stuarda, which is about Mary, Queen of Scots, and Roberto Devereux, about the ill-fated romance between Elizabeth I and her favorite courtier. All three were directed by Steven Lawless.
The Anna Bolena set is a quasi-reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, with its balconies in a semi-circle. Unfortunately, designer Benoit Dugardyn only copied the upper floors. The bottom two-thirds of the stage is blocked by a two sets of immense hinged wooden panels that move like the walls at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Resembling the lids from gigantic packing crates or barn doors, they clank and teeter as they move into various formations. This movement changes the scenes all right, but from and into what remains a mystery. Other than a bed and a prayer bench, there is no furniture. This means that everyone must either stand or fall on the floor, which they all do at one time or another.
Three large anachronistically lighted display cases come and go. Two of these contain the royal robes of the king and queen displayed on mannequins, much like Jackie Kennedy’s inauguration dress. The third has a golden chopping block and an ax. Anne sends it off stage early on, but much to her distress, it returns at the end to claim her, much like Lohengrin’s swan. Prison bars fly in for the last scene, but the door is inexplicably unlocked and Anna strolls in and out of it. Talk about minimum security.
Steven Lawless takes a low-key approach to staging the opera. Since there is nowhere for anyone to sit down, he is left with little else to do but create a series of singing tableaux vivant. The characters enter and occasionally move from one side of the stage to the other. But mostly they just stand and sing. While this allows the singers to convey the considerable emotion and drama with body language and facile expressions, it makes for a static production and encourages overacting.
Costume designer Ingeborg Bernerth has some hits and misses. In Act one, Henry is dressed in a most unflattering outfit that appeared to be both too tight and made of vinyl. He looks much better later, as garments are added. The women are in attractive period costumes. The men don’t fare quite as well. They seem to be in waist jackets, black tights and Bermuda shorts. Historically accurate or not, the shorts look a little silly.
Musically, things are considerably better. Alexander Rom’s chorus is impressive and Music Director Graeme Jenkins conducts the excellent orchestra, delivering an top-notch reading of the score. It is stylistically right on target, as are his tempi.
All of the singers give 110 percent, most of the time. Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian, as Anna, is the strongest member of a strong cast. She sounds as fresh in her demanding final scene as she does at the beginning.
Tenor Stephen Costello, a local favorite making quite a splash on the national scene, also ends strongly. I fear for him in the future because he sings all-out a lot of the time as he pushes him lyric voice into spinto territory, but it seems to be working for the present.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Jane Seymour. She has an odd overtone in the upper range, and pushes the voice early. She barely makes it through her last aria.
Four of the singers resist the temptation of over-singing. Brooklyn-born bass Oren Gradus gives a highly nuanced performance as Henry, demonstrating vocal control and the best diction of the evening. Dallas-based baritone Mark McCrory is terrific as Anne’s brother. Italian mezzo-soprano Elena Belfiore, in her American debut, is completely convincing as a young boy in the pants role of Smeton. She has a great future in these roles in that she is both vocally and physically perfect for them. Aaron Blake makes a stalwart Hervey, a court official.
Donizetti’s opera contains some of his most beautiful music. There are many times when the singing captures the audience. You can hear foreshadowing of Verdi in many passages and the duet "Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio" between Anna and Jane is unsurpassed in the repertoire.
Perhaps that was Steven Lawless’ plan, to let the music speak for itself. For the cognoscenti, this might work quite nicely. However, for a first time opera-goer, singers standing and singing is just what they always feared opera would be like.