The Dallas Opera’s current Anna Bolena, which continues through Nov. 14, is a feast for lovers of singing but somewhat less satisfying as musical drama.
The name Anna Bolena is, of course, the Italian form of Anne Boleyn, the unfortunate young woman who became the second wife of Henry VIII, gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I, and was executed to make way for Jane Seymour, Wife No. 3.
The principals were strong characters in life and Donizetti wrote some spectacular music for them in the opera. The Dallas Opera has assembled a cast that does justice to the music.
Sunday afternoon’s performance in the Winspear Opera House seemed slightly out of balance because Denyce Graves as Jane Seymour was so vocally strong as almost to become dominant. However, Hasmik Papian as Anna Bolena had some wonderful moments, including a vocally powerful final scene.
Oren Gradus as Henry VIII was another strong asset, and the other principals maintained a high level. They included Stephen Costello as Lord Percy, Mark McCrory as Lord Rochefort, Elena Belfiore as Smeton and Aaron Blake as a court official. Costello seemed to be the audience favorite Sunday, though I found his singing at top volume and pitch to be a little grating.
Graeme Jenkins led an excellent performance by the Dallas Opera orchestra and chorus, but I wonder how many listeners pay much attention to the pit in such a vocally focused work. Donizetti wasn’t one of the masters of the orchestra.
The set is a little problematic. Designer Benoit Dugardyn puts the top two tiers of a 16th-century theater high up, and beneath it places a rather oppressive high paneled wall that moves noisily about during scene changes. A cage descends to imprison Anna before she marches off to her death.
Ingeborg Bernerth’s costumes range from what were apparently everyday clothes of the time to sumptuous court attire. At one point Henry VIII in full regalia assumes a Hans Holbeinish pose, a nice stroke.
Donizetti and his librettist tinkered significantly with historical details in Anna Bolena — for instance, in the opera Percy rejects a pardon and goes voluntarily to his death with his beloved Anna, while in real life Percy survived Anne and even participated as a juror in the trial that led to her execution.
So it’s forgivable that director Stephen Lawless tinkers a little with both history and Donizetti: He adds a silent character to this production — a girl of about 12 or 13 who appears periodically to observe the unhappy goings-on. She’s Princess Elizabeth, and the point is obviously that her experiences in a highly dysfunctional family molded her character. Actually, Elizabeth was 2 when her mother was beheaded.
Despite Lawless’ interesting ideas, Anna Bolena seems too much a product of a bygone musical era to come to vivid life as an evening of drama. Just listen to the music.
(Some related musical trivia: British history and literature had a huge influence on 19th-century European composers. History provided plenty of drama, there are all the Shakespearean plays, of course, and other writers, especially Sir Walter Scott, were sources. I once was shocked to discover that Schubert’s Ave Maria — arguably the most beautiful song ever written — was originally set to a German translation from Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. A history of the lyrics can be found here. The Lady of the Lake also was the source of Rossini’s opera La Donna del Lago. Lucia di Lammermoor is another Scott-sourced opera. In fact a whole book could be written — and probably has — about Scott’s place in the history of opera.)