The first-ever Anna Bolena was Giuditta Pasta, who also created Bellini's Amina and Norma. Her voice was supposedly "difficult," and did not have a very free upper register. Here is a description:
Madame Pasta's voice has a considerable range. She can achieve perfect resonance on a note as low as bottom A, and can rise as high as C#, or even to a slightly sharpened D; and she possesses the rare ability to be able to sing contralto as easily as she can sing soprano. I would suggest ... that the true designation of her voice is mezzo-soprano, and any composer who writes for her should use the mezzo-soprano range for the thematic material of his music, while still exploiting, as it were incidentally and from time to time, notes which lie within the more peripheral areas of this remarkably rich voice. Many notes of this last category are not only extremely fine in themselves, but have the ability to produce a kind of resonant and magnetic vibration, which, through some still unexplained combination of physical phenomena, exercises an instantaneous and hypnotic effect upon the soul of the spectator. This leads to the consideration of one of the most uncommon features of Madame Pasta's voice: it is not all moulded from the same metallo, as it is said in Italy (which is to say that it possesses more than one timbre); and this fundamental variety of tone produced by a single voice affords one of the richest veins of musical expression which the artistry of a great cantatrice is able to exploit."More famously, Pasta attempted a comeback with Anna Bolena. Pauline Viardot compared it to Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper -- "it's a wreck, but still the most greatest wreck in the world." It doesn't seem then that the first Anna Bolena was a songbird who had a stratospheric upper range, but rather a dramatic coloratura. Perhaps this is why the sopranos who have had the most success in this role in the 20th century -- Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Beverly Sills -- were all known as singers who pushed their instruments relentlessly in the bel canto repertoire. Even Joan Sutherland never touched this role until it was quite late in the day for her.
Well here are clips of Anna's Anna:
I've heard the whole thing on youtube and on the first radio broadcast, and think for a first attempt at this role, it's pretty good. One thing about Netrebko is that her voice is not the kind of light, flexible voice that's so popular and prized among bel canto lovers today. It's a big voice, dark in color, and can be unwieldy. But it's clear that Anna's made a real attempt to lighten the voice, to make her coloratura cleaner and more articulated, to observe the trills, to play with dynamics more than she usually does. Sometimes, when she's in a "careless" mood, she sings two ways -- loud and louder. Her trill seems to be one of those things she can do, but doesn't, since when she actually sings them (as in "Al dolce guidami" it's pretty good.) Her diction is markedly improved. And there's little of that throaty, sluggish, thick sound that marked her Lucias a couple years back. I really agreed with all the criticisms of her Lucia, but I think with Anna Bolena, she's really made an attempt to be a "good girl" and the effects she's created are beautiful and musical.
What I like about Anna's Anna is the straightforward, direct way she sings this music. There is little fussing over the vocal line -- the melodies are presented in a clear, "no-frills" fashion. She is observing (or tries) to observe the trills and grace notes more than she ever has in this kind of repertoire, but one doesn't get the feeling that she's singing just to show off the ability of her pyrotechnics. There's a melodic cleanness to her approach that I like.
I really can't believe the amount of hostility Netrebko gets online by people who swear they don't even listen to her. For some reason, whenever she sings, people claim to follow along with a score in hand. No other singer gets the score-desk treatment, just her. They're like Beckmessers, taking relish in talking about every smudged trill and missed grace note. It sounds like a Catholic grade-school nun. Many opera lovers use terms like "washerwoman" or, more crudely, "whore" when talking about Netrebko. They criticize everything about her, from her clothes to her interviews. They also swear that she's only where she is because of her looks. And to that I say, absolute nonsense. There are many singers who are more beautiful than Netrebko. If you look carefully at Netrebko, especially post-baby, her figure is kind of full, with wide shoulders, a thick waist, and short neck. She has a pretty face, but it's more wholesome than striking. And it's also a myth that she's a star because of her acting abilities. I've seen her in a variety of roles, and she is always an energetic, engaging performer. She can be a wonderful comedienne (as in Norina). She has a flirty, minx-like quality onstage. But sometimes she can be dramatically inert, and she doesn't do tragedy as well as she does romance or comedy. I saw her do a Mimi where she never seemed more than slightly perturbed by the fact that she was dying.
No, I think Netrebko is where she is today because of her voice. It's one of the most beautiful soprano voices in opera today, and it has the power to ride over the orchestra and other singers. The sheer sound of it wins over the hardest hearts. And I think the reason why she continues to be popular even in roles that don't really fit her (Elvira in I Puritani, Juliette in Romeo et Juliette) because it is refreshing to hear such a big, rich sound in music that nowadays is so often sung by small, slightly shrill lyric sopranos. I think people also like Netrebko because her singing is so unfussy and straightforward -- at its best, her singing is refreshingly direct and unpretentious. It's a weird comparison but I compare her singing to early Elvis Presley in its energy, exuberance, and mass appeal. Without her voice, Anna would be just another pretty lyric soprano churned out by the dozen by vocal conservatories every year.
It's funny how yesteryear's favorite punching bags become today's models. When Edita Gruberova first started singing dramatic bel canto roles, critics jumped on her. The voice was too Slavic, too edgy, lacked warmth, etc. Plus, she wasn't Callas, Sutherland, or Sills. But now the bright, slightly edgy voice with a freak upper extension has become so prized in bel canto works. Diana Damrau is a major star today, and her voice is very much in the Gruberova mode. Anna's voice is not that type of voice, and never will be. If she has a vocal sister it might be Montserrat Caballe, who throughout her career was criticized for the exact same things Netrebko is often criticized for -- smudged coloratura, weak trill, dramatic inertness, poor diction. But I wonder if 20 years from now people will be saying of the next essayer of Anna Bolena, "Oh, but you should have heard Anna sing Anna."
Here's a comparison of 10 divas singing "Coppia iniqua":
Here's Caballe singing Anna Bolena:
I think Netrebko looks kind of heavy in the silk dresses she's wearing in this production. Either that or she needs to lose a few pounds. Surely the velvet dresses that are more of the Tudor period would have been more flattering? They give the figure a firmer shape, whereas silk dresses don't flatter a thicker figure like Netrebko. The Tudor-style ruffles might have filled out the natural curves of Netrebko's figure -- in the thin silk frippery, she looks slightly matronly. Look at the lovely costumes Callas wore for the role -- the dark velvet is wonderfully atmospheric, and they gave Callas's hard, manly frame a regal silhouette.
Compare this with Netrebko's dresses, which just make her look heavy:
What is bothersome about the video is the production. Why do directors do this? There really ought to be a moratorium on the idea that bel canto operas are really just diva glamor vehicles, and so the direction should consist of nothing but:
1. A unit set which is nothing but some stage steps and moving panels with a spotlight on the diva at all times.
2. Drably dressed choristers standing absolutely still for the entire opera, with absolutely no attempt to weave them into the drama.
3. The diva dressed in some kind of fine silk dress which exposes plenty of cleavage, but is totally out of period.
Anna Bolena has such a rich storyline, and there's so many opportunities to show off not only the voice, but one of the most famous historical events of all time. Come on directors, step it up!