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Alkema as Anna Bolena at Minnesota Opera
© Michal Daniel 2013
One of the surprises in Kevin Newbury's production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena for Minnesota Opera (seen Nov. 10) comes at the very end of the show. A little girl in a white satin gown runs onstage and stares at Anne Boleyn as the condemned queen is about to ascend the scaffold to her death.
The child, in fact, is Anne's daughter, who grows up to be Elizabeth I. Elizabeth plays no part in Felice Romani's libretto for Anna Bolena, though as Queen she is a central character in the other two operas that, along with this one, make up Donizetti's so-called "Tudor trilogy" — Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, both featured in Minnesota Opera's repertory in recent seasons. By bringing Elizabeth into the story line this early, Newbury, who staged all three productions for Minnesota Opera, makes the interesting argument that Elizabeth's obsessive resort to violence when Queen — she engineers the deaths of her cousin, Mary Stuart, and her suitor, Devereux — has been prompted, at least in part, by the childhood experience of seeing her mother executed. (In real life, of course, Elizabeth, not yet three years old at the time of her mother's death in 1536, did not witness Anne's execution.) Newbury makes an even subtler connection, one that Alfred Hitchcock might have enjoyed. In the final scene of Newbury's Devereux staging, Elizabeth wears the same white gown — the same design, at least — that she wore as a child in Anna Bolena.
Newbury's thoughtfulness, his eye for detail and his ability to frame the dramatic moment have made these three productions rewarding experiences. Even though it's unlikely that Donizetti thought of these three operas, composed over the course of seven years, as a unified story line, they can be seen, as they have been here, as a three-part survey of Elizabeth's long life. Wisely, to enforce that unity, Minnesota Opera engaged the same production team for all three operas — Newbury, Neil Patel as set designer, Jessica Jahn as costume designer and D. M. Wood as lighting designer. Though each production has had its own look, they have shared an evocative mix of abstraction and realism, along with a kind of monumentality in the design that never dwarfs the characters and their relationships. For Newbury and his team, court life in Tudor England is a cesspool of intrigue and suspicion. The monarchs can never be alone. As a vivid symbol of their oppressive public roles, the huge coffered ceiling that dominates the stage also dominates their lives.
Anna Bolena is surely the most dramatically convincing of Donizetti's Tudor operas, the one with the most fully drawn characters. Newbury had the advantage of a strong cast of singing actors here. Soprano Keri Alkema gave a compelling, sympathetic portrayal of the doomed Anna. Alkema's mad scene was subdued and pathetic — no wide-eyed leering or rending of garments — and her shift at the end toward a state of serene acceptance rang absolutely true. Vocally, she was impeccable from start to finish, displaying impressive coloratura agility at the top and nicely varied colors in her lower register. Lauren McNeese brought a rich, flexible mezzo to Giovanna Seymour, standing up bravely to Alkema in their confrontation scene. Iowa-born Kyle Ketelsen couldn't have been bettered as the ruthless, arrogant King Henry, and his articulate, resonant bass-baritone never flagged as the evening wore on. Among the rest, Victoria Vargas was a sweet-toned Smeton, and David Portillo, though he tired a bit near the end, displayed an elegantly tailored tenor in the one-dimensional role of Percy. Michael Christie, the company's new music director, conducted a well-paced, idiomatic reading of the score, drawing a fine performance from both orchestra and chorus.
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