Anna Bolena is a great showcase for soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, but not much else

ANNA BOLENA by Gaetano Donizetti and Felice Romani (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). Runs.

ANNA BOLENA by Gaetano Donizetti and Felice Romani (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). Runs to May 26. $35-$350. 416-363-8231. See listing. Rating: NNN

The last time the Canadian Opera Company mounted Donizettis Anna Bolena was in 1984 for the legendary Australian soprano Joan Sutherland.

That makes sense. As an opera, its no crown jewel. Felice Romanis libretto, which tells the story of how Henry VIII (Christian Van Horn) manipulates matters with his eponymous second wife (Sondra Radvanovsky), who failed to produce a male heir, to marry the hopefully more fertile Jane Seymour (Keri Alkema), is a narrative mess of historically inaccurate melodrama. Even the score is uneven, filled with arias and scenes that stop and start until the exciting ending.

But as a star vehicle for a singer of exceptional dramatic and vocal ability, its understandably popular. And Radvanovsky, whos already triumphed as one Donizetti Tudor monarch for the COC, nails the queens complex emotions in floating pianissimos that pierce the heart and fierce, thrilling runs and high notes.

All of which is impressive, considering that Donizetti and Romani move Anna around the stage haphazardly, now with guilt-ridden lady-in-waiting Jane (Giovanna in Italian), now with abusive, cock-of-the-walk Henry (Enrico), now being serenaded by smitten musician Smeton (Allyson McHardy), now reconsidering her feelings for former fiance Percy (Bruce Sledge).

The poor woman interacts with many, but we rarely glimpse her character.

Director Stephen Lawless gets some terrific effects from Benoit Durgardyns Globe Theatre-inspired set, particularly in the way the chorus of courtiers, beautifully helmed by Sandra Horst, get to gossip and comment on the action. Theyre lit by Reinhard Traub for maximum moody intrigue and tension.

Unfortunately, cumbersome scene changes require moving pieces of the mostly wooden set around, and these slow down an opera that already has pacing issues.

Thankfully, the production is saved by the fine singing actors. Van Horns booming-voiced Enrico is vain, seductive and swaggering Lawless often has him lounging on a bed or chair but also capable of enormous cruelty.

Alkemas gorgeous tone and empathic dramatic instincts help her establish Giovannas conflicted nature, while Sledge and McHardy exude ardour as Annas contrasting suitors.

As for Radvanovsky, watching her effortlessly navigate one of Donizettis long vocal lines under conductor Corrado Rovaris, you see why shes one of the reigning voices of this era.

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