"Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived" -- so goes the schoolroom mnemonic for the ways in which the six wives of Henry VIII met their respective ends. Gaetano Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" (1830), which opened Saturday at the Ordway Center in a new, sensationally sung production by Minnesota Opera, is concerned with wife no. 2, the unfortunate Anne Boleyn, and no. 3, the conflicted Jane Seymour (Anne's sometime lady-in-waiting). Think of it as the "Masterpiece Theatre" of its day, complete with mad scene and spiced with a timely reminder that the personal really is political.
"Anna Bolena" is the last of the works of Donizetti's so-called Tudor trilogy (with "Roberto Devereux" and "Maria Stuarda") to be staged by Minnesota Opera. In fact, Donizetti conceived the operas separately. But stage director Kevin Newbury effectively stitches them together, painting a broad (and rather gruesome) historical vista.
He accomplishes this partly with Neil Patel's idiosyncratic set, used in all three productions, in which scenic elements, often pervaded with religious symbolism, descend from a massive coffered ceiling. And in "Anna," Newbury goes a step farther, cheekily putting the 2-year-old Princess Elizabeth (the future queen, daughter of Henry and Anne) on the stage at key moments and making her a mute witness to her father's execution of her mother. Psychoanalysts, take note.
Credit a phenomenal cast of American singers for the success of this production. First among equals is soprano Keri Alkema (Anne). Unerringly musical, with diaphanous top notes, she lacks only the narcissism of superstars like Anna Netrebko (who essayed the role last year in New York). Alkema's timbres remain creamy after three hours of strenuous vocalism; she toggles convincingly between defiance and despair.
Kyle Ketelsen brings menace and suavity to the role of Henry; his virile bass-baritone and polished physicality, familiar from past appearances as Mephistopheles and Don Giovanni, are magnetic. Lauren McNeese's affecting Jane, David Portillo's ringing Percy, Richard Ollarsaba's rueful Rochefort and Victoria Vargas' ardent Smeton are similarly distinguished.
Conductor/music director Michael Christie, a growing presence in the pit, finds the right tempo for almost every number; his orchestra might have been a bit louder.
For me, Donizetti's music, in which Minnesota Opera has been heavily invested, tends to occasion some disappointment. The composer's productivity still astounds. He wrote gorgeously for voices, women's in particular, and could charge an unaccompanied vocal line with deep and discordant feelings. Yet his operas, formulaic in their architecture, seldom take wing. Is it time for a moratorium?
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.