Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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The Other Boleyn Soprano

October 30, 2010

Photo: Dallas Opera 2010

I’ve stopped off in Dallas this weekend. It’s a city I find myself more enamored with on each visit and I must admit the allure of their beautiful new modern Winspear Opera House looms large. The Dallas Opera recently opened their second season in their new home with Mozart’s Don Giovanni (more on that later), but on Friday, the season’s second production, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena opened up in a new version from director Stephen Lawless and designer Benoit Dugardyn. It’s a good show and very enjoyable overall despite some technical concerns. In fact I was rather surprised by the show overall in that the elements I was most worried about on paper turned out to be pretty good (the singing quality) and those I was more optimistic about were more of a disappointment (the staging). But that only goes to show that you shouldn’t always trust your expectations, particularly when it comes to opera.

Donizetti’s take on the second and third wives of England’s Henry VIII has as little to do with history as anything Shakespeare wrote about the same family tree. Anna Bolena is one of three “Tudor” operas the composer penned and the first in terms of the trio’s dramatic chronology. Of course this is the deep heartland of the bel canto repertoire and it comes at an interesting moment for Dallas Opera. Anna Bolena completes the company’s presentation of the "Tudor" trilogy and arrives in the wake of the recent death of Dame Joan Sutherland, perhaps the most important bel canto soprano of the 20th century and an artist who made her American debut (and gave her American farewell) in Dallas. Ironically, despite this legacy, the current cast of Anna Bolena in Dallas contains a number of vocalists with rather questionable bel canto chops.

The lead is sung by Hasmik Papian who has carved out a niche singing bel canto roles despite nagging questions in many quarters about her ability to manage the technical elements of doing so, especially over the last several years. On Friday, she didn’t manage a trill and the roulades were sloppy to non-existent. But she is still very pleasing to listen to and manages her high notes with ease. She is an engaging actress as well and was able to fill a very empty set with enough drama to keep the evening aloft. Jane Seymour was sung by another artist not known for her colouratura technique, Denyce Graves. Graves has sounded rocky to me vocally on her most recent outings, but as Seymour she was more solid and assured than what I’ve heard in the last few years. The Act Two duet between the two artists was a highlight. Was it ideal bel canto singing? No. Was it an enjoyable evening of opera? Absolutely. As much as Sutherland’s standard-bearer shadow reaches out over bel canto operas, I think it’s important to remember that she almost single-handedly revived much of this languishing repertory due to her super-human vocal skills. Holding everyone to that standard is both unfair and unrealistic. There are so many beautiful bel canto operas and I think it would be a shame if they didn’t live on being sung by other professional, if decidedly more human, voices.

I should also mention how impressed I continue to be with the young tenor Stephen Costello, who appeared as Henry Percy, Boleyn’s former lover returned to court. He’s warm and assured and could easily give the likes of Juan Diego Florez a run for his money. He and his wife Ailyn Pérez, who is currently singing Zerlina in Don Giovanni here, are going to give a free concert for patrons and new subscribers on November 8 and will return to San Diego Opera in Faust in April next year. If you haven’t seen them, you should. The orchestra sounded good and was led by music director Graeme Jenkins. Jenkins took rather leisurely tempi throughout, keeping the singers comfortable. And while the energy never flagged, the show did feel it was getting a bit long in the tooth by the final scene.

But as much as I was pleasantly surprised by how well the vocal part of the show came off, I was equally taken aback by how flat and uninteresting the staging was. All of the action played out in a semi-circular Elizabethan stage area with chorus members appearing on two balcony levels above the stage floor. This set has served as the basis for all the "Tudor" opera productions Lawless' had directed in Dallas, often with similar casts. The lower level was obscured by tall wooden panels connected by hinges to form a screen. The panels could be noisily moved back and forth in different configurations allowing for various shaped empty rooms. Occasionally, three display cases were rolled out revealing the king’s robe and crown, the queen’s robe and crown, or a chopping block with attached sword. It was kind of like shopping at 16th-century Nordstroms. Some metal grates were dropped from above to represent a prison in the last scene after small amounts of hay were dropped on the floor. Which was a good thing since everyone knows you can’t be crazy on an opera stage without getting dirty or putting something unusual in your hair like broken flowers or hay. Then there were those bucks. In a hunting scene in Act I, two bare-chested men enter wearing horned deer skulls and engage in a mock fight until one of them is downed and Henry VIII comes to finish him off. It sounds a lot sexier than it actually is, trust me. The rest of the costumes were all straight out of Britain’s National Portrait Galley so everyone was pretty recognizable. But it was really up to the cast to make this thing work, and they did. Anna Bolena runs through November 14.


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