Rivals Onstage, Lyric Opera Stars Are Best of Friends Offstage

Chicago Tribune
December 2014

by John von Rhein

Photo credit: Zbigniew Bzdak 

Photo credit: Zbigniew Bzdak 

On a recent afternoon backstage at Lyric Opera, Sondra Radvanovsky and Jamie Barton were behaving like the gal pals they are, hugging each other and singing each other's praises.

Quite the contrast to the emotional sparring partners the singers are playing in Lyric's new production of Gaetano Donizetti's Anna Bolena — the castoff consort Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, Anne's lady-in-waiting and rival for the affections of the cruel King Henry VIII.

Indeed, in conversation, neither the Berwyn-born soprano nor the Georgia-native mezzo-soprano came across as your standard-issue diva, however imperious they behave in the long-awaited Lyric return of Donizetti's bel canto masterpiece, which opens Saturday night at the Civic Opera House.

“It's fun and exciting when we put our voices together,” said Radvanovsky, who's familiar to Lyric audiences for her portrayals of the big Verdi soprano roles, and who's lately been enhancing her star status in the bel canto repertory as well.

“Yes, it's fascinating how well our voices blend,” agreed Barton, a singer whose stellar promise Lyric has nurtured in various supporting roles since her company debut in 2011.

The sublime beauty of classically trained voices intertwining in soaring melodic arcs is one of the hallmarks of bel canto opera, of which “Anna Bolena” (1830), Donizetti's first big international success, is a shining example.

Lyric's production, which the company is sharing with Minnesota Opera, is directed by Kevin Newbury and conducted by Patrick Summers, both making house debuts. Rounding out the A-list cast will be bass John Relyea as King Henry; tenor Bryan Hymel (Lyric debut) as Anne's first love, Percy; and mezzo Kelley O'Connor as the page Smeaton.

Vocally, Anne Boleyn — Anna Bolena, in her Italian operatic incarnation — is among the composer's most dazzling and demanding roles, and few are the sopranos who can do it full justice. Maria Callas managed to do so a couple of generations ago, and so did Joan Sutherland in 1985 when Lyric staged the Donizetti opera for the first and only previous time in its history.

Now it's Radvanovsky's turn to take on Donizetti's doomed heroine. These Lyric performances find the sought-after American soprano in the midst of a multiseason traversal of the composer's three Tudor queens — in the operas “Roberto Devereux,” “Maria Stuarda” and “Bolena” — at the Metropolitan Opera. Clearly she's on a bel canto roll, and recent press reports suggest this repertory suits her like a well-tailored glove.

That said, the Anne Boleyn we meet in Anna Bolena has little to do with the actual queen of British history.

King Henry's consort is depicted operatically as a hapless victim of the manipulation of others, driven insane, imprisoned and sent to the block by her husband's cruelty and accusations of infidelity. Meanwhile, the deeply conflicted Jane Seymour implores the king, whom she also loves, to save Anne from execution. Intense emotions flash like dueling sabers, transformed into stunning ensembles and thrilling vocal display.

Together, Radvanovsky and Barton have been treating audiences to quite a lot of bel canto vocal fireworks of late.

In September they starred as Norma and Adalgisa, respectively, in Vincenzo Bellini's “Norma,” at San Francisco Opera. That new production, which will reunite most of the artistic team Lyric is fielding for “Anna Bolena,” is being shared with Chicago, although Lyric has yet to announce when it will mount it here.

How, I asked the singers, did their “Norma” experience prepare them for taking on their similarly challenging roles in “Anna Bolena” here?

“Donizetti's music is so economically written, so that every note has a meaning. I enjoy singing it immensely, especially with Jamie,” Radvanovsky replied.

“The part is not just vocally demanding but also emotionally draining — I love that. For me, bel canto is medicine for the voice.”

Making it through a long evening onstage with sufficient voice left over for Anne's spectacular, 20-minute final scene before the queen is led off to her execution is, she added, “all about pacing and stamina, which is something you have to learn, along with making sure the character has a trajectory.”

Barton, who's by comparison a relative newcomer to bel canto opera, said that singing Jane Seymour is a matter of adapting her Verdi-Wagner mezzo and technique to what she calls Donizetti's “less structured” music. “The emotional intent is not written into the vocal lines as it is with Verdi and Wagner,” the singer observed. “You really have to create your own thing within the style, the language, the character.”

There can be no doubt these artists owe their refreshingly down-to-earth manner, at least in part, to having grown up surrounded by large, supportive families.

Radvanovsky was born in west suburban Berwyn, moving with her family to Richmond, Ind., when she was 11. “My roots really instilled Chicago values in me,” she said.

“Those values make for grounded, very normal people.”

“Southern values are similar,” observed Barton, who hails from the town of Rome in northwestern Georgia, where her father sang in a church choir. After studies in vocal performance at Indiana University (where she was mentored by the great American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne), Barton enrolled in apprentice programs in St. Louis and at Tanglewood before she won the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions, along with five other singers, in 2007.

Radvanovsky credited her voice teachers, Ruth Falcon and Martial Singher, for helping her develop her rich top voice and for giving her the guidance and confidence she needed before she, too, won the Met National Council Auditions in 1995, later enrolling in the company's young artists development program.

She patiently worked her way up the career ladder before eventually taking her place as the Verdi soprano of choice at the world's leading opera houses.

Barton's apprenticeship as a member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio equipped her, she said, to take on “the big-girl arias” in the Italian and German repertory that has become what singers call their Fach, or area of vocal specialization. Her first-prize triumph at the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in Great Britain in 2013 admitted her to opera's big leagues, and she's never looked back.

Both singers said they're perfectly content living far from the pressure-cooker atmosphere of New York City.

Radvanovsky makes her home outside Toronto, where she lives with Duncan Lear — “my husband, business manager, traveling companion, chef and luggage carrier.”

When Barton, whose home base is a suburb of Atlanta, observed that not a single member of the “Anna Bolena” cast lives in New York, Radvanovsky replied, “I think that's what keeps us all sane.”

Not the worst mental state to be in when you're playing an unhinged Tudor queen.