They're not called soap operas for nothing. For decades these overripe melodramas may have been steady fare on daytime TV, but they can definitely trace their parentage back to the Romantic opera houses of Italy, with the bel canto ("beautiful singing") works of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini as prime examples. Love is the motivator, driving the poor heroine to distraction, so a mad scene is sure to end the work. Throw out all historical accuracy in your main character because, really, who cares if someone like Anne Boleyn had an affair or not to make husband Henry VIII (Enrico) fall out of love and take up with Jane Seymore (Giovanna, as she's called here)? It makes for juicy drama and spices up the work. And if she's innocent of the charges, so much the better, for it makes her entirely sympathetic as she spews vengeance on her wayward hubby and defiantly bares her neck to the executioner. It may not be true, but it makes for the grandest of opera.
Opera in the Heights mounts an exciting and dramatically sung production of Donizetti's first major work (1830). Anna put him on the international-opera map. Donizetti had been slaving away in Naples and had composed at least 35 other operas when he struck gold with librettist Felice Romani's tale of Tudor royalty gone bad. Blessed with an ideal cast that boasted the best that Europe had to offer (soprano Giuditta Pasta as Anna, tenor Giovanni Rubini as Percy, rising superstar Elisa Orlandi as Giovanna, and Rossini's favorite bass Filippo Galli as Enrico), the opera was a smash. In another 15-year period, as if finally struck by his muse, Donizetti followed Anna with 35 more operas, but this time including such masterpieces as L'elisir d'amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, La fille du régiment and Don Pasquale.
With dramatic pace and an almost volcanic fury, Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo steers the OH production toward a heading that never falters. He keeps up the tension from the tumultuous prelude through all the personal melodrama and straight into that stupendous duet between Anna and Jane that crowns the opera. The score sounds all of one piece as it inevitably leads to Anna's mad scene, making this showstopper a logical extension of the drama, not something vocally tacked on to highlight the soprano. Thanks to Donizetti's mastery of theme and constant orchestral variation, the three-hour-plus score flies by, which is high praise indeed for one of these lengthy operas from the 1830s.
As wrongly accused Anna, soprano Camille Zamora tore up the intimate space with her drama-filled voice and subtle acting. One could easily be tempted to go overboard in this role, but Donizetti wisely gives everyone else a fair share of the spotlight, venting much of the pressure. Zamora knows when to kick back and when to let go, as when she must shuffle her emotions between her former lover, Lord Percy (tenor Lázaro Calderón), who has shown up unexpectedly at court, and her misplaced attentions toward Enrico (bass Erik Kroncke), with whom she has never fallen in love. Then there's the whole other subplot with lady-in-waiting Giovanna Seymour (mezzo Sandra Schwarzhaupt), who has troubles of her own as she is racked with guilt over her affair with the king and her betrayal of her best friend, and queen, Anna. And let's not forget young court musician Smeton (mezzo Patricia Cay in a pants role), who's in love with Anna, too, and unwittingly moves the tragedy onto another level when he attempts to return a miniature of the queen he has stolen and catches Percy declaring his love for her. It is then that the king enters, catching everybody declaring love and swearing innocence at the same time. Nobody can beat these bel canto works for their swiftly paced coincidences. Donizetti sets all this to music of the highest caliber, as he paints the scenes with unrivaled emotion using lush, arching melodies. You can hear what Mr. Opera himself, Giuseppe Verdi, would later appropriate and make all his own when he revitalized opera two decades later.
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With a large voice that rattles the balcony when she lets go, Mezzo Schwarzhaupt is a bit overpowering for the intimate OH space, but she tamps it down for the great duet with Anna, "Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio," as they both hurl insinuations, regrets and remorse at each other. If there's ever a real girl-power moment in opera, this is it. Calderón, as Percy, has a lovely, clear tenor and makes an ardent suitor ready to die for love. His high notes ring out without force. Especially appealing was Kroncke's Enrico, with his cistern-deep bass and commanding stage presence. And the pivotal roles of Smeton and Anna's brother Rochefort were in capable hands indeed under Cay and bass Daymon Passmore. In Donizetti's capable hands, everybody gets a fair shake, especially the chorus, who sounded mighty smooth under the tutelage of chorus master Vincent Fuller. Stage director Brian Byrnes made good use of designer Rachel Smith's stepped set, allowing for decorative and dramatic placing for maximum effect. And the costumes of Dena Scheh were handsomely Tudoresque and detailed, although the hooped gowns for Anna and Giovanna read more Scarlett than Elizabeth.
After Maria Callas made such a splash in the role at La Scala in 1957, Anna Bolena made a deserved comeback into the repertoire. The Metropolitan has recently remounted it for superstar Anna Netrebko, but any chance to hear it is something special. Downsized (and compared to the Met, what isn't?), OH's production is first-rate and spellbinding. It is soap opera at its most cleansing.
See Anna suffer regally and sonically through February 5 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd. The ruby cast (with Emily Newton as Anna, Natasha Flores as Giovanna, and Zach Averyt as Percy) performs January 27, February 3 and February 5. Order tickets online at www.operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303.