Thursday October 6, 2011 - The Metropolitan Opera has finally presented Donizetti's ANNA BOLENA. A portrait of the ill-fated queen above. Years ago there were rumors at The Met that BOLENA would be mounted for Sutherland, Caballe or Scotto but it never came to pass. New York City Opera of course gave all three of the Donizetti/Tudor operas for Beverly Sills in the 1970s which led to her commercial recordings of the three great roles. In truth, the sheen was wearing off the Sills voice by the time the project started and her unsparing vocalism in ROBERTO DEVEREUX was thought by many to hasten her vocal decline, as exciting as her performance of the role was.
Anna Netrebko, the Met's Anna, is the fourth soprano I have encountered in this role in the theatre. I saw Sills of course; her voice was a bit tired and raggedy by that point though her fiorature were still accurate. Overall the Sills voice seemed too light and glassy for the music, despite some attractive passages.
Olivia Stapp sang Anna Bolena in a revival of the NYCO production in 1980. Despite a tendency towards verismo at times, she gave a thrilling performance - I saw it twice - and her high-D at the end of Act II practically gave me a heart attack.
In 1985, Dame Joan Sutherland - quite late in her career - sang a concert performance of BOLENA at Avery Fisher Hall which I atttended. Incredibly the entire evening is available on YouTube, in two parts. Dame Joan, helped considerably by the cuts and pacing (and a bit of transposing) of her husband Richard Bonynge who conducted, gave authoritative vocalism but was too mature physically to be convincing as Anna, even in a concert setting. The star that night was Judith Forst as Giovanna Seymour.
Beyond that, there's the famous Callas BOLENA from La Scala to enjoy on pirated CDs along with the Gencer, Scotto, Souliotis and Caballe interpretations; in 1970 the young Gilda Cruz-Romo, just embarking on her career, graciously sent me a tape of herself singing the role in a performance at Dallas when she replaced Elena Souliotis.
And now at last we have BOLENA at The Met. It's not a very good production, really, and manages to make what I always think of as a fairly exciting opera seem bland. It's an opera that needs to be cut; there's a lot of filler stuff that can be pared down. The overture is generic: it could serve for any number of 19th century Italian operas. Fabio Armiliato, a good Puccini and verismo conductor, didn't seem to have the right ideas about this bel canto opera. The evening dragged on, weighted down by a quirky set which was moved pointlessly into the large castle hall where the first scene took place. The third scene, which should be set in an ante-room of Anna Bolena's boudoir, instead took place in what a few moments previously had been a courtyard. It's unclear why Henry VIII, quite famous for his auburn hair, is portrayed as Italian-looking with black hair and beard.
None of the singing was particularly distinguished. Ekaterina Gubanova, as Seymour, was announced as suffering from a cold. Even in blooming health I do not think this is the voice for Giovanna's music; with her tone under a cloud, she made hardly any vocal impression. (When the production's originally-announced Seymour, Elina Garanca, canceled, I would have invited Laura Vlasek Nolen to step in.) Ildar Abdrazakov's voice seemed to go from stentorian to muffled from one phrase to the next. Stephen Costello was not comfortable with the music of Percy. The tenor roles in all three Donizetti/Tudor operas are thankless: they sit in a high tessitura, call for grace and nuance of delivery, and are usually forgotten by the end of the evening. Costello's voice is not distinctive and he seemed somewhat ill-at-ease onstage; I would have cast Eric Cutler in this role. Eduardo Valdes as Hervey sang sharp.
The one singer who seemed really right for this opera was Tamara Mumford as Smeaton; in fact one could regret that she was not cast as Giovanna. She has the tonal beauty, wide range, dynamic sensitivity and technical finesse to make somthing of the music, and she looked like a tall, gangly youth into the bargain. Brava Tamara!
Anna Netrebko's voice seemed a bit cloudy at first. It cleared as the opera went on but she tended to sing just slightly above-pitch much of the time. Her coloratura, even at Armiliato's leisurely tempos, was sometimes smudgy and she doesn't have an instinctive flair for colouring the voice. Some nice piani along the way; she nailed a top-C at the end of the second scene but the top-D that caps Act I - sustained as it was - did not seem steady. In a production that seemed devoid of real direction, Netrebko had little to work with in building a character. The dramatic kiss she plants on Enrico's mouth as he rushes off to the hunt (leaving his wife to be framed for adultery) was a calculated gesture which showed the passionate impetuosity that had originally attracted Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn. The rest of the time the production left Netrebko to stew or fret at will.
Some people were taken with the presence of the young Princess Elizabeth at her mother's side, and with the two dogs who made an appearance before the hunt began. The New York City Opera production also utilized a Young Bess and a pair of hounds.
Although the Netrebko mad scene was said to be the real deal, Dmitry and I left at intermission; we ran into Craig Salstein and Gillian Murphy who were also leaving.