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.