Anna Bolena

Anna Bolena
Metropolitan Opera
October 3, 2011

If I could have played a drinking game last night, it was "drink once every time a singer stomps to a doorway, pauses, then turns around, fists balled, to launch into an angry cabaletta." It seems as if David McVicar's directions for Donizetti's Anna Bolena basically amounted to this repeated action, over and over again. Donizetti's Anna Bolena is not as interesting as the real Anne Boleyn, who went to her death fiery, clearheaded, and unrepentant. She even made a grim joke about her neck on her way out. Donizetti's heroine of course none of the real Anne Boleyn's complexity -- she's a put-upon heroine, and of course she has to have a spectacular, pitiful mad scene. But still, with all the knowledge and popularity of these historical characters on TV, film, and books, surely they could have made a more interesting production?

Musically the evening was at a pretty high level, one or two exceptions aside. The worst performance bar none came from conductor Marco Armiliato. These ottocento operas need a sense of rhythm and urgency, and a contrast of tempi to mark changes in moods or scenes, or musical transitions. Armiliato conducted the whole evening as if he were, like, you know, at a Deadhead concert. He slacked constantly behind the singers, sometimes completely missing their entrances or cues by a few beats. The ensembles (including the Act One finale) sounded disjointed, with the chorus and the singers not really in sync. The Met orchestra was also noticeably out of tune. It was a horrible performance that really gave a low level of energy to the whole evening.

Tenor Steven Costello as Percy was also a big disappointment. His voice is narrow and reedy, with a tight, constricted top. Not much volume or projection, either. He was professional, but his voice has no beauty and no bloom. I thought his big second act aria "Vivi tu" should have been cut as by then he was also out of gas and bleating very badly. I really can't picture him as Romeo or Rodolfo in a big house like the Met. Tamara Mumford in the trouser role of Smeaton was an unexpected delight. Very smooth, silvery mezzo, with a fast but controlled vibrato. Her serenade in the beginning of the opera was excellent. Ildar Abdrazakov (Henry) has a hard-edged, cold bass that was fitting for the role of the cruel monarch.

Ekaterina Gubanova (Seymour) was a substitute for a pregnant Elina Garanca. The plain, dumpy Gubanova actually looks more like the Seymour of history than the glamorous Garanca. Her voice is also warmer, and she's a more sympathetic stage presence than Garanca's mezzo, which often sounds like a sheet of ice. But in the duet with Anne, her timbre doesn't have enough of a contrast with Netrebko to really make an impact. She sounds like Anne's little sister, rather than a hated rival. The best Anne/Seymour combination remains Callas and Simionato in those famous 1957 Scala performances. (The opera, by the way, gives us a highly sympathetic version of the real Jane Seymour, who was apparently quite heartless in moving from Anne's lady-in-waiting to Henry's wife within a matter of months.)

Anna Netrebko's highly anticipated performances as the doomed queen were both more and less than I expected. I saw the opening night transmission at Times Square, and she seemed more driven on opening night to put on a grand show. Last night in Act One she seemed almost to be marking much of the time, probably to conserve energy for the much more famous, musically compelling second act. Her voice remains a wonder in the opera world -- rich, warm, almost mezzo-ish, but with a bright and trumpet-like top that extends all the way up to E flat in alt. Vocally the performance was conscientious -- almost as if she were answering her critics. Some say she tends to sing without much dynamics, and last night she floated a beautiful pianissimo in the mad scene. She's worked on her much-criticized trills, articulating them clearly in "Al dolce guidami" and making a stab at them in "Coppia iniqua." (In fairness, I've heard almost all the extant recordings of "Coppia iniqua" and even Callas and Sills can't handle the repeated ascending trills without some slurring and smudging.) Her scales are cleaner, without the distracting snatches of breath that marred her Lucia di Lammermoor. Her diction remains a problem -- often cloudy and mushy. But obviously she's studied the score and done the rule musical justice.

Nevertheless it was kind of a dull performance, without much of the famous Netrebko spontaneity and charm. She only occasionally took flight from dutiful to truly inspired. Maybe it was the grim production and costumes, with almost everyone dressed in historically correct gowns, but in varying shades of black, black, and more black. Maybe it was the direction, which as I said consists of people stomping out of doorways, only to turn around, "furious", to sing an angry cabaletta. I actually think that this is Anna trying to be serious, queenly, "grown up," but she's mistaken dull for dignified. Opening night Anna broke character and smiled at the audience after "Al dolce guidami" but last night her expression never changed -- it was always a frown. Of course Anna Bolena is a purely tragic role, but more vivacity and fire would have been both more historically accurate and more entertaining.

The sets and production were very "bel canto," which means lots of vaguely historical-looking sliding panels, fancy period costumes, and drab lighting, with the chorus standing around for much of the evening looking alternately bored and pained. In Vienna during the final moments of the opera Anna starts playing with her very very long wig, curling it into a sort of bun and leaving her neck exposed. This hair fussing is in the Met production as well, and it was an annoying distraction. The final tableau used the Met stage elevator to reveal an executioner awaiting Anna, and then there was a symbolic red curtain. Except the red curtain didn't really fall on time to make the required effect. It also got snagged on the scenery. One thing I will say: the wolfhounds were adorable, lighting up the stage the way only cute doggies can. In the hunt scene, my eyes naturally just drifted towards the two darlings.


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