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From left to right: Keri Alkema as Giovanna Seymour and Sondra Radvanovsky as the title character in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Anna Bolena.

Michael Cooper coopershots.com

  • Title: Anna Bolena
  • Company: Canadian Opera Company
  • Venue: Four Seasons Centre in Toronto

What a gamble it is for an opera company to put up a production, and centre its publicity, almost entirely around the lead singer. Without the multiple points of entry of casting, direction and design, that focus opens the door to risky questions and confirmation bias: Will the lead singer live up to the media buzz? Is the production actually good, or is it simply a vehicle for a famous name onstage?

In the case of Stephen Lawless’s production of Anna Bolena, onstage at the Canadian Opera Company through May 26, that lead singer is Sondra Radvanovsky, the superstar of today’s stages who has etched a significant piece of operatic history with her portrayals of Donizetti’s “Three Queens”: Anne Boleyn in Anna Bolena, Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux and Mary, Queen of Scots, in Maria Stuarda. Radvanovsky famously performed all three roles in the single, heavily hyped 2015/16 season at the Metropolitan Opera and the three queens are still among her signature roles.

Anna Bolena is the final opera in Lawless’s productions of the Three Queens trilogy to come to the COC. If you’re up on your history, you’ll catch that Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII and her subsequent beheading happen before the stories of Liz or Mary. In fact, history buffs might find a lot at which to be miffed in Felice Romani’s libretto for Anna Bolena, which does a fair amount of factual cherry-picking and judicious adjustment for the sake of drama.

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Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena.

Michael Cooper coopershoots.com

If you can ignore the selective history, you can appreciate that Radvanovsky’s extraordinary performance in the title role is just the tip of the iceberg in this COC production. It takes real sound and presence to share a stage with Radvanovsky, and some very big shoes were indeed filled by Christian Van Horn as Henry VIII and Keri Alkema as Jane Seymour. Van Horn, a fairly last-minute replacement for Eric Owens, booms through his kingly role, taking up as much space and making as much noise as he pleases. Alkema creates a Jane Seymour with an interesting mix of sympathy and frustration. Next to Radvanovsky, Alkema sounds the part of the younger, perhaps more nervous wife-to-be. It’s refreshing, then, to see her not as a damsel, but as a fallible woman who all at once lies, has ambition and feels remorse.

History has taught us to loathe Henry VIII and sanctify Jane Seymour. But Van Horn gives us a villain in shades of grey; he puts his gross declamations of “justice first” next to his swaggering codpiece and the virility in his voice. It’s enough to make one lose one’s strongly held convictions about England’s famous champion of divorce. And Alkema’s Seymour is no simple saint; she touches the throne as though it’s a lover, and tries her darnedest to manipulate her King, first for the crown, and later for Anne’s life.

Lawless’s production is an excellent way in for those seeing Anna Bolena for the first time (such as this reviewer). The Globe Theatre-inspired sets, which are used for all Three Queens, evoke Shakespeare, which in turn evoke not only a specific sense of chronology, but remind us Anne Boleyn’s fate was a spectacle, an early prototype of how we inhale our opinion-laden news today.

Heavy-handed as they are at times, clear dramatic symbols jump out to remind us of what’s unsaid in this opera. The mob of (mostly) men watch the action from two and three stories above, no doubt full of useless opinions on Anne Boleyn’s life choices. Reinhard Traub’s lighting design casts conspicuous shadows of women onto the wooden walls, a nod to women’s status as second-class citizens who are seen but not heard – even when they scream. Lawless places amid the action a young Elizabeth I (again, for those of you who know that she was just 2 when her mother was beheaded, you’ll do best to ignore this depiction of a girl about age 10), who climbs innocently around the throne as though it were a playground, and who is revoltingly brought in to witness her mother’s capital punishment. And you might catch the subtle scene of Henry VIII as he takes single bites from each of the fresh apples offered to him on a platter, discarding the bitten fruit with lazy indifference. Get it? Because the apples are his wives?

Among the symbols and pomp is an astonishing performance by Radvanovsky. She has a true palette of colours in her voice, the most thrilling of which are the metallic bite she reserves for an earnest phrase and the sheer volume she wields like a fabulous weapon. To hear her sing isn’t to hear utter perfection, but rather complete commitment – which is much more interesting. Among star singers on which an opera company could gamble an entire production, Radvanovsky seems to be a sure thing.

Anna Bolena runs at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre through May 26 (coc.ca).