September 13, 2012 at 9:33 am EST | by Greg Marzullo
Of queens and minions

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of ‘Anna Bolena.’ (Photo by Cade Martin, courtesy WNO)


‘Anna Bolena’
Washington National Opera
Sept. 15-Oct. 6
‘Don Giovanni’
Sept. 20-Oct. 13
Kennedy Center
2700 F St., NW

From epic royals to legendary libertines, Washington National Opera’s 2012-2013 season openers are a perfect fit for capital city audiences mired in a presidential election year.

First out of the gate is Gaetano Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena,” opening Sept. 14. Starring soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, the 19th-century opera follows the waning days of Anne Boleyn’s reign as Queen of England before being found guilty of adultery and beheaded.

“The opera is amazing dramatically,” says Radvanovsky, “and the music on top of it is just any soprano’s dream.”

Radvanovsky made a name for herself in the dramatic soprano repertoire of Giuseppe Verdi, but in recent years, she started branching out to explore other roles. Often compared to renowned soprano Maria Callas, who revived “Anna Bolena” from near obscurity in the 1950s, Radvanovsky’s voice possess a full-blooded timbre that’s matched by a riveting acting sense, according to her director for this production, Stephen Lawless.

“The intelligence which she brings to the playing of Anna is thrilling and moving,” says Lawless, who’s gay. “She always puts her abilities to the service of the job in hand.”

The opera culminates in a heartbreaking and defiant mad scene for Anna, yet both Lawless and Radvanovsky feel this isn’t the garden-variety hysteria portrayed in other operas, including the same composer’s calling card “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

“She’s emotionally naked,” Radvanovsky says of the queen. “The easy card to put down is to play cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs. Anna Bolena isn’t crazy; it’s just too much for her to handle, and I think that’s something that more people can relate to.”

“She finds inner resources that I suspect she never knew she had,” Lawless says about the doomed queen, adding that her death transforms tragedy into “something glorious.”

DESPITE THE TUDOR-ERA setting for the story, the opera’s themes bear striking relevance to today’s social and political climate. Donizetti contrasts Anna’s undoing with the ascendency of the social-climbing Jane Seymour, who has caught the eye of Henry VIII and will become queen after Anna’s decapitation. However, Anna’s betrayal of a true love from girlhood haunts her throughout out the story, reminding Jane Seymour and audiences that dreams of power can’t buy happiness.

“I started singing when I was 11,” says Radvanovsky. “When I was 18 years old, I said, ‘By the time, I’m 30, I’m going to be singing at the Met.’” This dream came true for the singer, as did her chance to sing with legendary tenor Placido Domingo. She sang with him during “Cyrano de Bergerac” on her 35th birthday, causing her to ask the older legend what she should do now that she’d accomplished her goals.

“He told me, ‘Oh, Sondra. You must go get a new dream.’”

Now in her 40s, Radvanovsky feels that anyone, from the American people trying to choose a president to a young girl aspiring to be queen of 16th-century England, needs to focus on the moment at hand instead of an unpredictable future.

“If [Anna] had lived in the moment, she would have seen that she wasn’t in love with [Henry], but she was looking a year ahead. We are looking into politics in the same way. We put so much hope in these dreams, hoping that Obama or whoever continues down the road we want.”

Lawless, a British native, sees the opera’s connection to today’s audience in a slightly darker hue, recounting how Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the United Kingdom during the recent Olympics. While there, he was asked about Pussy Riot, the female punk band who staged a protest act against Putin weeks before his recent election to the presidency.

“He said, ‘I hope the courts will be lenient with her,’” remembers Lawless, “and that’s exactly a Henry [VIII] statement. It’s that kind of abuse of power that gives this piece its ironic resonance. Henry’s abuse of power should make you as angry as the Pussy Riot thing.”

WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA’S next piece, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” follows close on the heels of “Anna Bolena” and opens Sept. 20. The infamous womanizer of the title gets his karmic comeuppance by opera’s end, attended throughout by his long-suffering servant, Leporello, played by gay bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams.

“I have played it once before, where he was very dark,” he says of the character. “I’ve since come to realize that’s not right. It needs to be multi-layered. We need to remember that it’s a ‘dramma giocoso’ — a dark comedy.”

Paul (left) and Andrew Foster-Williams. Andrew plays Leporello in Washington National Opera’s production of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni.’ (Photo courtesy WNO)

The singer travels the world with his partner, photographer Paul Foster-Williams, who grew into an avid opera devotee because of his 14-year relationship with Andrew.

“I didn’t come from an opera background,” Paul says. “Now, I would do anything to go and see opera. It gives you the most returns in any art form.”

Paul compares opera with baseball, a realization he came to after going to see a Nationals game while staying in D.C. last spring for Andrew’s turn in “Werther.”

“I had no idea what was going on,” Paul says, laughing. “If you go to the football or soccer game and you don’t know the rules, you might not ever go to another game. It’s the same with opera. The more you experience, the more you get it, the more you will be come absolutely addicted to it, I promise.”

“The reasons people enjoy baseball is because they understand the rules,” Andrew adds. “They learned the rules, therefore they understand the skill of the players.”

The charming British couple hastens to add that opera is performed with translation surtitles projected above the stage, so no one need sit through hours of unintelligible bellowing.


THE FOSTER-WILLIAMSES are clearly a couple who have their own rules down pat. They say they’ve had to develop particular ways of living a life that’s eternally on the road.

“We land in a place,” says Paul. “Andrew goes out and gets provisions. I try to make the apartment feel like a home. We don’t speak to each other at least for a couple of hours.”

“If you’re going to have an argument, it’s then,” Andrew concurs.

“I think some people would end up killing each other,” says Paul. “We’re very lucky. Other people go to separate jobs, and they have separate things to share. What we’re sharing is the discovery of different places together.”

Some productions settle them in a city for a couple of months, while others find them hopping four continents in one week, as it did last spring. After finishing up in D.C., they went to London, Hong Kong and finally Sydney, Australia, which was locked in the grips of winter.

“We had to buy new clothes and leave some new clothes,” Andrew says.

Despite the chaos, the couple remains passionately committed to the arts. Paul’s photography has had to take on a new character, as long-term projects are out of the question now, so he ends up photographing the artists Andrew works with as well as the city locations Paul explores during his partner’s long rehearsal hours.

“Experiencing so much music traveling with Andrew, I think I understand singers well. Singers adapt to each evening, each audience, the atmosphere that evening. It’s so organic, it’s so alive all the time.”

Andrew sums up the role of the artist as an obligation to restoring the humanity to operatic characters.

“This is about making opera real again. The fate of it rests in the hands of the artists singing it.”

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