Sunday, February 26, 2012

Juilliard String Quartet - Stravinsky, Janacek & Mozart - 02/25/12

Stravinsky: Three Pieces for String Quartet
Janacek: Quartet No 1 for Strings, “Kreutzer Sonata”
Mozart: Quartet No 18 in A Major for Strings, K. 464

After three grand scale piano-centric concerts and a dazzling opera, I figured it was time to go back to the more intimate, but no less intense, pleasures of chamber music with the Juilliard String Quartet, one of the premier ensembles in that field for decades now, courtesy of The Peoples’ Symphony Concerts this weekend. The program featured the intriguing trio of Stravinsky, Janacek and Mozart, and the performance would take place in the Washington Irving High School, which would be a new venue for me. So last night I decided to brave the blustery cold (Wait! Was it a mini snow storm we got around 7 pm?!) and the Saturday night crowds for what could only be an evening of highly refined entertainment.
Located in the exclusive Gramercy Park neighborhood, the historic Washington Irving High School turned out to be an interesting building, which included Gothic-style architecture and colorful murals inside a rather inconspicuous exterior facade. The theater was kind of breath-taking in its own way too with its bright blue walls and slightly faded orange curtains straight out of the 1970s. But hey, if my eyes were a bit taken aback, there was no doubt that the Juilliard String Quartet were going to engage my ears and elevate my mind, so let it be music.

Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet could have easily been named, more accurately, Three Short Pieces for String Quartet, and that would still have been an understatement. However, regardless of their respective lengths, each of these works was packed with experimental elements as mysterious as appealing, especially to the layperson that I am. Within less the 10 minutes the remarkably sharp ensemble had impeccably moved from folksy to whimsical to spiritual without batting an eyelid, and had brought the whole captivated audience along with them as well.
Inspired by Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, itself inspired by Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata”, Janacek’s own “Kreutzer Sonata” is a disturbingly turbulent score. The composer allegedly wanted to convey the mental state of a “poor woman, tormented and run down” and he can rest assured that he has definitely succeeded beyond measure. Played with precision and vigor, the convoluted music contained all the free-flowing anguish and pent-up anger of somebody having a really, really bad day. This was actually something I could briefly relate to as the woman across the aisle was suddenly hit by an uncontrollable coughing fit, which prompted a well-meaning but distracting deluge of candy offerings, paper unwrappings and annoyed glares, until she finally had the good sense to get up and leave.
After our foray into iconoclasticism with Stravinsky and Janacek, a more traditional pièce de résistance was programmed in the form of Mozart’s ever-pleasing Quartet No 18 in A Major. Economical yet complex, this classic pays a heart-felt tribute to Haydn, to whom it was dedicated, proving that the prodigy pupil had assimilated the old master’s lessons so well that he couldn’t help but move on and way beyond the artistic expectations of his time. The less than perfect acoustics, which occasionally dulled the shininess of those wonderful strings, and the harsh lighting, which inexplicably stayed on during the whole performance, nevertheless did not manage to spoil the inspired playing coming from the stage. Striking just the right balance between robustness and gracefulness, The Juilliard String Quartet made the popular work sound fresh and delightful, as if we were hearing it for the first time.

Our hearty ovation did not go unheeded, and the quartet took us even further back in time with a brilliant little Bach number as a token of their appreciation, before we all headed back out in the still blustery cold, but without a single snow flake in sight.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Met - Madama Butterfly - 02/17/12

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Placido Domingo
Producer: Anthony Minghella
Director and Choreographer: Carolyn Choa
Cio-Cio-San: Patricia Racette
Lt. B.F. Pinkerton: Adam Diegel
Suzuki: Maria Zifchak
U.S. Consul Sharpless: Laurent Naouri
Goro: Tony Stevenson

When I want to introduce an unsuspecting friend or even just a mere acquaintance to the countless pleasures of opera, Madama Butterfly is the one title that readily springs to my mind. And it is easy to understand why: a straightforward story, an exotic setting, well-defined characters, East meets West, and, above all, Puccini’s unabashedly melodic score. Plus, let’s face it, just over three hours in the world of opera is pretty conservative. Bottom line is, if at the end of the journey they are not converted or at least intrigued enough to look forward to learning more, I know that all hope is lost.
I had heard so much about Anthony Minghella’s production since its premiere in 2006 that I had made the Met’s revival of it with Patricia Racette one of my top priorities this season. What I had forgotten to take into account though, was the long-established extraordinary popularity of Puccini’s masterpiece and how fast the affordable tickets would disappear. I finally got back to my senses last Tuesday and managed to snag an exceptionally good seat for Friday night, obviously due to a cancellation. I was not crazy about going to the Met after spending the two previous nights at Carnegie Hall (It is, in fact, possible to get too much of a good thing) but then again, what do you do when Puccini’s world famous geisha is calling? You soldier on.

And I am so glad I did. I am also particularly glad that after the opera’s disastrous opening night at La Scala in 1904, the Italian composer stubbornly stuck to his guns and never gave up on it, even as he put it through several round of revisions. From the final version on, the doomed love affair between an innocent 15-year old Japanese girl and a thoughtless American cad, which was inspired by an American play and a French novel, has remained at the very core of the opera répertoire and will no doubt continue to captivate the crowds for many centuries to come.
As I was taking my seat in the packed opera house on Friday night, my heart almost missed a beat as the dreaded insert fell from my program. After taking a deep breath, I dared to have a look and found out that the crucial role of Pinkerton would be taken over by Adam Diegel (?) after Roberto de Biasio, whom I had really enjoyed in Simon Boccanegra, had fallen ill. Drat.
On the other hand, Patricia Racette was decidedly there, and in fine form too. Although she does not have the star wattage of an Anna Netrebko or Renee Fleming, she is not lacking in any of the artistic requirements for that kind of exposure either, except, maybe, for a zealous publicist. After witnessing her riveting Jenufa and heart-breaking Ellen (in Peter Grimes) in DC in the past few years – I had found her less convincing, if still solid, in The Met’s Tosca – I was eager to see her in the mercilessly challenging role of Cio-Cio-San. She did not disappoint. Her steadily wide-ranging, vividly luminous voice as well as her reliable acting skills were major assets in her persuasive portrait of her young heroine’s various states of mind. One of the saddest arias in all opera, “Un bel dì” was all aching longing and tenacious hope, subtly emphasizing the dream slowly turning into near-insanity.
Stepping into such a landmark role as Pinkerton at the last minute cannot be easy for anybody, but young Korean tenor Adam Diegel was obviously game and delivered a more than respectable performance. My only objection is that I found his Pinkerton a bit too much of a one-note likable guy for such a notoriously unsavory character, especially when his voice, after some quick warming-up, became engagingly warm and downright appealing. But my light reservation notwithstanding, he did a fine job.
The famous long love duet in the garden was for sure the highlight of the evening, with the two glorious voices harmoniously responding to each other before sensually intertwining in an arresting scene featuring undulating paper lanterns and fluttering flower petals. The irony of the whole set-up, of course, was that a Caucasian middle-aged soprano was playing an ingenuous Japanese teenager while a young Asian-looking tenor was impersonating a Caucasian American soldier. Only in opera!
The other roles were more than capably filled, with special kudos to the splendid mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak, who sounded as if she literally owned the part of Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant and confident. Laurent Naouri was a perfectly decent U.S. Consul Sharpless and Tony Stevenson an adequately cunning Goro, the marriage broker. The Met chorus was as fabulous as usual, discreetly but unmistakably glowing.
When I attend an opera, I usually care more about the musical component than the visual aspect of the production. For this one, however, I had different expectations. And I have to say that this Madama Butterfly allowed me to marvel at some of the most stunningly beautiful tableaux I had ever seen onstage. Richly colorful costumes, versatile sliding screens, a huge ceiling mirror, delicate paper lanterns, and, first and foremost, a masterful use of lightning, including an ever-changing background, were all combined with assured cinematographic flair for an endless enchantment of the eyes.
But even the most spellbinding productions have the occasional flaw, and in this case I found the use of Bunraku puppetry to introduce Trouble, Cio-Cio-San’s and Pinkerton’s little boy, and to display the short dream sequence, unnecessary and distracting. While I am all for the inclusion of local cultural touches – and some of them were deftly effective – I found that the presence of an ancient Japanese art form in a modern Western production of a classic Italian opera simply did not work, no matter how well-meaning the endeavor was.
The score, on the other hand, successfully combines Eastern and Western elements for an opera full of exquisite exoticism, gut-wrenching drama and, as always, priceless melodies. On Friday night the Met orchestra was playing under the baton of Placido Domingo, who knows a thing or two about Puccini in general and Pinkerton in particular. But somehow all this expertise did not translate in the most vibrant conducting I’ve ever heard. While the music was generally bright and colorful, the pace was at times erratic, and the final notes were heard almost half an hour after the estimated end time. But, really, who could complain about getting to spend some extra quality time with this Madama Butterfly?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Orchestra of St Luke's - Haydn, Beethoven & Mozart - 02/16/12

Conductor: Sir Roger Norrington
Haydn: Symphony No 39 in G Minor, Hob. I:39
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 1 in C Major, Op. 15 – Jeremy Denk
Mozart: Symphony No 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543

Although I occasionally try to make a point of opening my mind and ears to new musical endeavors, there is no way I could resist a program presenting masterpieces of Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart, performed by the uniformly excellent Orchestra of St Luke’s, conducted by their first music director from about two decades ago, the venerable Sir Roger Norrington, and featuring the fearless pianist Jeremy Denk. I frankly couldn’t imagine better musicians than these tremendously talented artists to breathe new life in those timeless, yes, but also repeatedly heard, works by the three interconnected masters of the Viennese Classical era. So after an awesome recital by Leif Ove Andsnes on Wednesday night, I was back in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium on Thursday night for musical highs of a different kind, but just as promising.

Although I generally love the Classical composers almost as much as the Romantic ones, I have never unconditionally warmed up to Haydn. Deep respect, sure. Love, not so much. I did, however, very much enjoy the decision of maestro Norrington and the orchestra to boldly bring out the contrasts of Haydn’s 39th symphony for a rich, full-bodied sound.
Maybe to emphasize the influence of the two older composers on their younger, ground-breaking colleague, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1 – which is actually the second one he wrote – was book-ended by Haydn and Mozart in the program. But even more telling of the endeavor’s innovative nature was the shape of the stage, with the piano facing the audience, the pianist turning his back to us and the conductor facing him from the other side of the instrument. Even before the piano entrance, Jeremy Denk was already mimicking playing it, as if he just couldn’t wait to get started. When his turn finally came, the air filled up with so much refreshing inventiveness that it was hard to believe this concerto first came out over two centuries ago. The eventful first movement, including the long cadenza, was so impressive that its conclusion prompted Sir Norrington himself to spontaneously sit down and applaud, quickly imitated by a temporarily unsure but genuinely appreciative audience. The remaining of the piece was just as full of vitality and expressiveness, a perfect example of the value of teamwork.
Then we were on to one of the pillars of classical music with Mozart’s Symphony No 39. And for the third time that evening, Sir Norrington conducted sans podium, baton or score, but with an ever-present, if relaxed, authority. This 39 was a free-flowing river of attractive melodies and robust lyricism, a beautifully nuanced performance which can rightly claim a prime spot on my list of grand Mozart experiences.

Leif Ove Andsnes - Haydn, Bartok, Debussy & Chopin - 02/15/12

Haydn: Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI:20
Bartok: Suite Op. 14
Debussy: Images, Book I
Chopin: Waltz in F Minor, Op. 70, No 2
Chopin: Waltz in G-flat Major, Op. 70, No 1
Chopin: Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 70, No 3
Chopin: Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 42
Chopin: Ballade in A-flat Major, Op. 47
Chopin: Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No 1
Chopin: Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23

Based on my recent visits only, Carnegie Hall’s august piano collection has been getting quite a workout these days. After Jean-Yves Thibaudet for Shostakovich’s first piano concerto last Saturday night, this week I got the pleasure to experience back-to-back concerts by Leif Ove Andsnes, in town for his annual recital on Wednesday, and Jeremy Denk for Beethoven’s first piano concerto (with the Orchestra of St Luke’s) on Thursday. But what can I say…. The more the merrier!
An established master of the keyboard for years now, Leif Ove Andsnes still manages to keep things interesting in his quiet, understated but unforgettable way, and I eagerly look forward to hearing him play at least once a year. From the glorious Rach 3 to Schumann’s intimate Kinderszenen to an innovative multi-media performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, his performances have always been remarkably engaging and consistency flawless.
This season, however, is even more special than usual for me because my beloved Chopin is on his program, and I just couldn’t wait to hear was such a dream pairing would bring. Haydn, Bartok and Debussy completed the predictably well thought-out playlist, so it was with even higher expectations that my friend Paula – an even bigger fan of his than me, if possible – took our seats in the Stern Auditorium on Wednesday night.

A rarely performed work, Haydn’s Sonata in C Minor is notable for its melancholy opening, which will eventually turn into deeply turbulent moments. From the very first notes, Leif Ove Andsnes effortlessly gave the piece just the right amount of clarity, grace and thoughtfulness. We were obviously in for yet another memorable evening in the company of our favorite Norwegian pianist.
Bartok was a consummate expert at mixing folk dances and late Romanticism, and he proved it one more time with his Suite, Op. 14. A stylistically inventive work, this short interlude lifted everybody’s spirits up with its almost jazzy overtones before ending in a more meditative mood. From the light-hearted start to the darker finish, Andsnes assuredly brought out all the wildness and insightfulness of the colorful score.
After Austria and Hungary, we moved on to France with Debussy’s Images, Book I and its myriads of subtle harmonies. Perfectly suited to Andsnes’ detailed and sensitive playing, the richly textured three movements came off superbly.
After intermission, we finally got to the heart of the matter with a mini Chopin festival including four waltzes, two Ballades and one Nocturne. If the playful waltzes came off more rhythmically animated than they would have in other hands, the Nocturne was all delicate refinement. The sophisticated Ballade in A-flat Major went off without a hitch, but it is in the final piece, the mesmerizing Ballade in G Minor, that he let his tremendous virtuosic juices unreservedly flow for what has to be the ultimate live rendition of this popular work of Chopin’s.

After such a rewarding performance, we would have forgiven him for calling it a night, but he was obviously not ready to leave us yet and came back for not one, not two, but three equally fabulous encores: Chopin’s Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 34, No 1, Granados’ Spanish Dance No 5, and Rachmaninoff's Étude-tableau in C Major, Op. 33, No 2. Another memorable evening indeed.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - Tippett, Shostakovich, Honegger & Tchaikovsky - 02/11/12

Tippett: Divertimento on “Sellinger’s Round”
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No 1 in C Minor, Op. 35 – Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Honegger: Pastorale d’été
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48

In life as in music, timing is everything, and it is hard not to feel that a higher power is pulling some magical strings when things fall randomly but perfectly into place. And that is just what happened to me last week when after enjoying Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto on Thursday night in Washington, DC, I got to enjoy Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto on Saturday night in New York City. Moreover, the fact that the NY concert was going to be performed by the naturally charismatic, always exciting French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the esteemed trumpeter Louis Hanzlik, and the prestigious Orpheus Orchestra at Carnegie Hall could only promise a musical experience not to be missed.
Operating as a true democratic ensemble for almost four decades, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has remained resolutely conductor-less. This, however, has not prevented it from reaching impressive heights in terms of musical excellence, artistic innovation, audience involvement and community outreach. Accordingly, their open-mindedness makes for interesting choices: Beside the Shostakovich piece, the eclectic program they presented last weekend also included my beloved Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky, and two short works that I did not know: Tippett’s Divertimento on “Sellinger’s Round” and Honegger’s Pastorale d’été.

Written upon Britten's request for a variation on a famous tune from the time of Queen Elisabeth I for the coronation of Queen Elisabeth II, Tippett’s Divertimento on “Sellinger’s Round” probably makes the most sense if the audience is at least slightly familiar with English composers from the past. But while my lack of knowledge in that field was a clear impediment, I still found the work more engaging than two concert-goers across the aisle, engrossed in their iPhones, did.
Next was Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 1, a dense, petulant smorgasbord of various ideas and influences, which the composer wrote for himself and a minimalist accompaniment of strings and trumpet. On Saturday, Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the formidable soloist in charge of it, effortlessly switching from lyrical Romanticism to sarcastic wit, every mood firmly grounded in his dazzling virtuosity. Throughout the piece, the incongruous appearances of the trumpet whimsically added to the circus-like atmosphere, and if the whole adventure could be seen as sometimes lacking in genuine emotions, it was nevertheless a lot of sparkling fun.
After the constant inventiveness of Shostakovich, we calmed down during intermission and then moved on to a delicately melodic Pastorale d’été (Summer Pastoral) with Arthur Honegger’s short and lovely composition.
If the Shostakovich concerto on the program was more flash that substance, we certainly got our dose of heart-on-sleeve emotions with his fellow Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Opening with the unforgettable soaring motif that will return later, the work cannot but eloquently speak to the string lover than I am, and it indeed gets to me every time. In the wonderful hands of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular hit became a marvel of luxurious beauty and vibrant vitality, concluding my first Carnegie Hall concert of 2012 with immaculate heavenly bliss.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

NSO - Shostakovich & Bruckner - 02/09/12

Conductor: Christopher Eschenbach
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No 1 in A Minor, Op. 77/79 – Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Bruckner: Symphony No 9 in D Minor

Sometimes it is just best to roll with life’s left-field punches than try to fight them, so that’s just what I did during my quick, unexpected stay in Washington, DC earlier this week. Completely determined not to let an aggravating real estate issue take over my life and spoil my fun, I managed to find the time to meet with old friends and visit favorite haunts. Above all, I happily made it to the Kennedy Center for a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra with my dearest fellow music lovers.
The program consisted of only two – but what two! – works: Shostakovich’s jarring First Violin Concerto, performed by its biggest fan Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg, and Bruckner’s sprawling 9th symphony. Seeing the familiar faces of the NSO’s musicians always feels like coming home for a family reunion, and the less familiar face of Christopher Eschenbach added a cool touch of novelty, creating the perfect storm of comfort and excitement.

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1 may not be pretty thing, but it is a fascinating one. The wide range of emotions and the countless technical challenges make it a beast difficult to tame, but this has never stopped fearless Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg, who has made it her signature piece. After two decades of working it, on Thursday night she proved that nothing, not even a nasty bout of flu, would keep her from treating the audience with a dynamite performance of it. From the dark, penetrating Nocturne to the devilishly macabre Burlesque, she assertively remained in control of the wild composition, playfully shooting off the dazzling fireworks of the Scherzo and viscerally working her way through the exceptionally long, treacherous cadenza. Christopher Eschenbach and the NSO managed to keep pace with her and provided the perfect support for a memorable experience.
Another monumental work is Bruckner’s Symphony No 9, which he dedicated to his “dear God”. Although he had conceived it for four movements, the composer died before completing the last one, leaving the rest of us with just some fragmentary portions of it or his suggestion to use the Te Deum. Since neither option has ever been considered fully satisfying, most orchestras only play the complete three movements, forming an impressive musical arch made of a fast movement supported by two slow ones. On Thursday night, Christopher Eschenbach and his musicians superbly demonstrated that this is the way to go by delivering an engaging first movement followed by a fierce Scherzo before eventually raising to celestial heights in the Adagio’s mystical coda, which concluded the concert on a truly inspired, immaculately serene note.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

New York Classical Players - Massenet, Vanchestein, Debussy, Miluaud, Saint-Saëns & Ravel - 02/05/12

Conductor: Dongmin Kim
Massenet: Le dernier sommeil de la Vierge
Uriel Vanchestein: Double Concerto for Flute and Clarinet - Jasmine Choi & Uriel Vanchestein
Debussy: Andantino from String Ensemble
Milhaud: Chamber Symphony No 4, Op. 74
Saint-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso – Transcribed for the flute – Jasmine Choi
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte

After my big night at the opera on Wednesday, it was very refreshing to move on to an intimate, intriguing concert entitled “French Enchantment” in the lovely setting of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on the Upper East Side on Sunday afternoon. Only in their second season, The New York Classical Players have already generated plenty of positive buzz and for a good reason: combining various cultural backgrounds with tremendous artistic skills under the solid leadership of Dongmin Kim, The NYCP's goal is to bring classical music of the highest caliber to all, and they seem well on their way to accomplishing this laudable mission.

Starting the performance on a decidedly sacred note, Massenet’s “Le dernier sommeil de la Vierge” (The Last Sleep of the Virgin) delicately rose and ethereally lingered in the beautiful church. Just enough daylight was streaming through the magnificent stained-glass windows to keep us all in a dreamy state while the fabulous string players onstage were hard at work proving that they were wide awake and totally in control.
Commissioned by the NYCP, Uriel Vanchestein’s Double Concerto for Flute and Clarinet kept his clarinetist composer and flutist Jasmin Choi engaged in a spirited dialog during the span of three movements. Although the piece presented numerous technical challenges, the duo and the orchestra handled them all with plenty of aplomb.
Debussy’s Andantino bristled with exoticism, sensuality and spontaneous touches of colorful lyricism. In the young but expert hands of the musicians that were bringing it to life, this truly exquisite rêverie reminded me of Borodin at his very best.
After the intermission, it was time for some Brazilian-inspired rhythms that quickly warmed up the atmosphere with Milhaud's Chamber Symphony No 4. As comfortable with bubbly sounds as with mysterious moods, The NYCP did full justice to this joyous interlude.
I was skeptical about the merit of a flute version of Saint-Saëns’ delightfully melodic Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, a popular work for violin. I was wrong. Flute soloist Jasmin Choi showed plenty of virtuosic skills while negotiating the tricky score and turned the experience into an unquestionable, exhilarating success.
As if this hadn’t been enough, we briefly left France for Russia for a fun little goodie of an encore in the form of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”.
Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte” concluded this wonderfully eclectic French program with gentle soulfulness before we all stepped back out into the fading sunshine of a February afternoon.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Met - Anna Bolena - 02/01/12

Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Director: David McVicar
Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn): Anna Netrebko
Giovanna (Jane Seymour): Ekaterina Gubanova
Enrico (Henry VIII): Ildar Abdrazakov
Riccardo (Lord Richard Percy): Stephen Costello
Lord Rocheford: Keith Miller
Mark Smeaton: Tamara Mumford

After a sluggish January, to say the last, things are finally happening in grand fashion on the musical front with The Met’s first ever production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena starring Anna Netrebko, considered by many the hottest soprano of the moment. A sentiment that can be easily seconded by the posters of her as Anna Bolena and Manon that have been gracing countless corners of New York City for months now. An immediate success at its première in Milan in 1830, this bel canto opera’s popularity has had its ups and downs since then, but any opportunity to hear La Netrebko is not to be dismissed, so I quickly bought my ticket months ago and jubilantly joined the sold-out audience on Wednesday night.
Better known for her wit and intellectualism than her looks, Anne Boleyn certainly had a life – and a death – eventful enough to qualify as a bona fide opera heroine. So, even if assuming that Netrebko’s queen would be more glamorous than erudite sounded like a safe bet, the role still had enough possibilities to become an exciting creation. Moreover, since old-fashioned drama typically pays off better than elevated discourses, Donizetti understandably chose to focus on her ill-fated marriage to Henry VIII, throwing in the de rigueur mad scene at the end to wrap things up with a bang. Standard procedure, yes, but usually quite effective.

I am guessing that taking on the role of Anna Bolena may sometimes feel like running a marathon to the singer brave enough to do it. Probably immensely rewarding… if you make it to the finish line intact. Those past few years Russian soprano Anna Netrebko has become the ultimate package in the rarefied realm of true prima donnas: a magnificent, richly textured voice, a pretty face and a voluptuous body ready-made for period costumes, a charismatic presence onstage and energy galore. Luckily for us, all of that was on full display on Wednesday night at The Met where she delivered an intensely driven, fully committed performance of the punishing part.
But, as always, some scenes worked better than others. Her duo with Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Giovanna (Jane Seymour), during which she learned that her lady-in-waiting would become the next Queen of England, was a major vocal and dramatic peak for both women. However, if the famous last scene, which had her belt out a hysterical curse against the new royal couple, justifiably filled up the opera house with the fierce wrath of a woman scorned, it was also hard to believe that she was going to her death with forgiveness in her heart.
As the other woman, Ekaterina Gubanova was an appropriately ambivalent Giovanna, sincerely remorseful for all the pain she was causing her queen, but still too ambitious to give up the king. Nevertheless, if her character’s mind was unstable, her dark, attractive voice was assured and expressively conveys her conflicting emotions.
The object of both women’s affections, Enrico (Henry VIII) was impersonated by Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, who boasts an imposing voice and impressive presence, perfectly suited for the authoritative, borderline brutish, monarch. He also got to wear some of the coolest outfits of the evening. It is obviously good to be the king.
American tenor Stephen Costello was brilliant as the other man in Anna’s life, former lover Riccardo (Lord Richard Percy), who still harbored passionate feelings towards his first love. American bass-baritone Keith Miller, was genuinely touching as his buddy (and Anna’s brother), Lord Rocheford. I have never liked trouser roles and probably never will, but truth be told, American mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford was a continuously reliable, occasionally heart-breaking, Mark Smeaton, the court musician hopelessly enamoured with his queen.
If nothing was downright wrong with the production, nothing stood out as particularly original either. The costumes were predictably splendid, the sets uniformly bland but effectively serviceable, and the direction was lacking anything even remotely inventive. The women held their hands up against whatever was closer to them (wall, door, bed pole) when they were terribly upset and elegantly dropped to the floor when they felt utterly defeated while the men stroke traditional opera poses such as the authority figure for the king or the ardent lover for Riccardo. Even the two big dogs that made an appearance during the hunting scene seemed slightly bored by the ordinariness of the proceedings.
The music, however, did manage to keep things interesting, and the orchestra’s vivid take on Donizetti’s score for sure helped bring this Romantic tragedy to a whole other level with, among other things, remarkably powerful ensemble numbers. The sextet at the end of Act I, for example, was pure operatic bliss, perfectly highlighting the wide range of emotions simultaneously arising in the various characters. The final extended mad scene was the eagerly awaited opportunity for Anna Netrebko and the orchestra to dazzle the audience to a halt, and they naturally brought down the house with consummate professionalism. Met regular Marco Armiliato conducted with a sure, generous hand and undoubtedly contributed in making this production a respectable success. The year has started well.