Review of Opera in the Heights’ ‘Anna Bolena’

27 Jan

By JOHN DeMERS

To say something is “like an opera” is another way of saying it resembles the cruel and often deadly succession of English kings and queens through a period that lasted, well, a very long time. After all, even here in Texas, we don’t typically have our exes beheaded.

When it comes to Henry VIII, of course… not so much. Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena, which opened at Lambert Hall last night as produced by Opera in the Heights, is the composer’s breast-beating Italianate take on the fate that befell Anne Boleyn, who historically appears in Henry’s list of wives between Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour. Anne was indeed beheaded after a trial on a jumbled-up and probably made-up hodgepodge of charges weaving adultery into treason, with maybe a bit of witchcraft for good measure. Yes, the saga is “like an opera.”

Unfortunately, Anna set in England is mostly an old-fashioned opera, lacking even the weird fascination of the same composer’s Lucia di Lammermoor set in Scotland, with its heroine’s justly famous mad scene. In case you’re wondering, you know an opera is “old-fashioned” when the surtitles showing the lyrics in English either stay the same or, as though out of embarrassment, disappear from the screen altogether. This means the singer is repeating the same words over and over, mostly to show off a host of the composer’s trills and tricks. This habit had largely disappeared from opera by the era of Puccini and the verismo composers who came after him.  Any four-year-old with a crayon could trim 30-40 minutes out of this three-and-a-half-hour running time with nobody in the audience being the wiser.

On the other hand, and it’s a big one, this is Donizetti we’re talking about – one of the most tirelessly pleasing and surprising composers to ever come out of Italy. Every time you’re about to throw in the opera-tolerance towel, you realize that some of the most beautiful music with some of the most haunting harmonies you’ve ever heard is slipping through the cracks. You listen suddenly, listen and are amazed. There are too many of them and they go on too long, but the solos and duets in Anna Bolena are terrific. And even they are outdone by the series of quartets, quintets and sextets in which characters sing their souls simultaneously with music that stops your heart.

While still-new Opera in the Heights artistic director Enrique Carreon-Robledo has plenty to work with here, and he does, wonderful stage director Brian Byrnes has to make the most of what he’s given. Sure, the history is big and bold, but the opera itself is frustratingly static, without a lot of clear or passionate steering currents. Let’s just say that at no point in the opera could I think of a better way to stage a scene than the way Byrnes did it, even if I might wish the scene itself had gone away. Byrnes’ efforts got solid support from scenic designer Rachel Smith, costume designer Dena Scheh and lighting designer Kevin Taylor.

With Opera in the Heights’ tradition of double-casting some leads, not one but two “local girls” get to shine in the role of Anna. Camille Zamora from Houston, a wonderful and expressive singer who’s even more beloved for her annual Sing for Hope fundraisers, makes the Emerald-Cast Anna seem as believable as she can – though the unsympathetic victim’s role the libretto gives her seems at odds with history’s conniving and manipulative Boleyn. It’s a good bet that Emily Newton from Lake Jackson will enjoy similar success with the Ruby Cast.

Eric Kroncke is an imposing Henry VII in all performances, his basso edging toward profundo – or maybe that’s just in the monarch’s job description. Also memorable in the Emerald are Sandra Schwarzhaupt as Jane (here, Giovanna!) Seymour and tenor Lazaro Calderon as Anna’s probably-lover Lord “Riccardo” Percy. Bass Daymon Passmore is something of an Oh! Regular, and in both casts he is super as Lord Rochefort. His duets with tenor Calderon on opening night were true highlights.

Top photo by Shannon Langman: Zamora and her ladies. Bottom photo by AlysonToups: Passmore and Calderon.

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