Review: Anna Bolena (Canadian Opera Company)

Anna Bolena companyThe Canadian Opera Company brings the tragic tale of Anne Boleyn to the Toronto stage

The story of King Henry VIII of England and his many wives — two of which he had beheaded, two had their marriages annulled, one died of natural causes and the last was left widowed — is the kind of history that you really can’t make up. Undoubtedly, the wife who has most captured the public imagination over the years is wife number two, Anne Boleyn, who was publicly beheaded in order to make way for wife number three, Jane Seymour. The Canadian Opera Company‘s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena is a highly fictionalized version of events, but in doing so, it seeks to give Anne a powerful voice she was often denied in life and history alike.

This opera, first of all, belongs to the character of Anne Boleyn and no one else. Here, Anne/Anna (Sondra Radvanovsky, the “queen of bel canto”) is a transcendent and endlessly compelling character in Radvanovsky’s skillful hands. She exudes power, passion and dignity with every inch of her body, even as she slowly falls apart amid the machinations of the court.

The particular brilliance of Radvanovsky’s performance is in her ability to simultaneously project deep wells of emotion while also indicating how much Anne is holding back, how carefully she is choosing her words, and the degree to which she must be constantly performing in order to placate a fickle, faithless king. All of this is underpinned by Radvanovsky’s ethereal vocals, which are verstaile and commanding, frequently shaking the room. With her Anne, she gifts the COC stage with one of the most complex, layered emotional roles I’ve ever seen.

Rounding out the cast of fictionalized historical characters is Christian Van Horn as a delightfully roguish King Henry/Enrico and Keri Alkema as a conflicted Jane Seymour, Henry’s wife after Anne. Alkema and Van Horn have wicked hot chemistry, but Alkema’s role is the meatier one. A far cry from the saint she’s often painted as, Alkema’s Jane/Giovanna is torn between empathy for Anne and her own ambitions for the throne. Her purported love for Henry is intriguingly blurry: does she want the man or the crown he can offer her, and can she live with herself if her need for glory results in the destruction of a woman she loves and respects?

This is great dramatic stuff, and the moments when Alkema and Radvanovsky sing together are some of the most transcendent of the  entire show. Not only is their singing is intense and lyrical, but the combined richness of their characterizations clashing together after long scenes apart makes for absolutely stirring drama.

Meanwhile, Allyson McHardy sings beautifully as Smeton, the trousers role. Bruce Sledge, as Anne’s former lover, has a lovely voice that sent goosebumps up my arms, but doesn’t quite embody the despair and passion of his character to the same degree as the rest of the players here.

The stage is constructed in a series of moving wood panels, with circular galleries looming always overhead. The effect is that every scene, from the court to Anne’s bedroom, looks like it takes place in an Elizabethan playhouse (specifically, Shakespeare’s Globe). It also means that Anne is constantly being watched by all manner of people. It’s clear immediately that this sort of spectatorship is the grim reality of Anne’s world, and the tense walls between Anne’s private life and her public one are constantly threatening to collapse.

As my guest pointed out, the effect of seeing half the rounded theatre on stage implies that the Four Seasons Centre is the second half–a chilling detail that implicates the audience as silent witnesses to Anne’s bloody decline.

All of it builds steadily to an intense emotional crescendo. While it does run just a little long, Radvanovsky is such a force of nature on stage that she almost single-handedly carries the audience through the final tumults of despair, betrayal and defiance that marks the end of Anne’s life. It’s beautiful, tragic, infuriating and exciting all at once.

It also reminded me of just how fascinating a figure the real Anne Boleyn really was, and one who is often (still!) unfairly maligned and almost certainly innocent of the outrageous crimes Henry accused her of. Anna Bolena is, of course, an imagined account with plenty of inaccuracies, but as a speculative dramatic work it totally satisfies.

Anna Bolena is gorgeously staged, gorgeously sung, and gorgeously carried by the excellent COC orchestra. It’s a uniquely complex and dramatically exciting opera, and with the utter powerhouse of Radvanovsky at the helm, you really can’t go wrong with this stirringly winning show. Even if you’re more of an Anne of Cleves girl like me.


  • Anna Bolena  is playing until May 26, 2018 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
  • Show times are 7:30 PM on May 8, 11, 16, 24, and 26, with one 2pm matinee on the 20th.
  • Ticket prices range from $35 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
  • Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653).
  • Tickets can also be purchased on the TodayTix  app and website for theatre tickets.  Mooney on Theatre readers can get $15 off their first purchase at checkout with the code MOONEY.

Photo of the cast by Michael Cooper.