United Kingdom Met Live in HD 2011/12, Donizetti, Anna Bolena: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, conducted by Marco Armiliato. Broadcast to the IMAX, Waterloo, London, 15.10.11. (JPr)
The first of this season’s ‘Live in HD’ broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera was also a first for me as I have never seen Donizetti’s Anna Bolena before. The closest I got to it was knowing someone singing Queen Anne at some performances at, suitably enough, the Tower of London several years ago, though I never got to see it. Outside Britain, Anna Bolena seems to have been staged more often in recent years and this performance shows why. It is clearly the most dramatically convincing of the Donizetti operas I have seen, even if the score contains no real stand out (or should that be ‘stand-alone’?) duets or arias.
Felice Romani’s libretto concentrates on a number of pivotal emotional conflicts: Anne Boleyn, wedded to Henry VIII, suppresses her former love for Lord Richard Percy; her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, is guilt-ridden over her secret liaisons with the King, and the King himself, abuses his power to manoeuvre his wife into a compromising situation so that he can dispose of her and marry Jane. Thrown into this conspiratorial mix are a court musician, Mark Smeaton, a young boy (though a trouser role) infatuated with the Queen and her loyal brother, Lord Rochefort, and Hervey, a court official. So that is it: only 7 singers are need but these must be exceptional artistes if the opera is to succeed; it is not also a bel canto masterpiece but an opera that dramatically clearly inspired Verdi as there are many hints of Il trovatore, Aida and even, Otello in Donizetti’s 1830 score.
Anna Bolena relies on the singer portraying the title more than any that I can think of in the modern repertory. Even with Siegfried managements have a chance of finding another young hero but had Anna Netrebko been ill I wonder what would have happened. Thankfully Ms Netrebko was in great vocal health and seems to have scored a personal triumph here and her interpretation must rank highly with her many predecessors such as Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Renata Scotto, Beverley Sills and Edita Gruberova, though others will be better placed to tell me if I am correct.
Anna Bolena requires the singer to be focussed and serious throughout a long evening and there are practically no moments for show-off vocal histrionics as everything is intrinsic to her story. Of course there are the composer’s familiar long, spun-out melodies at times and when given the opportunity Ms Netrebko’s voice revealed its characteristic pliability and pure resonant tones, and she phrased everything particularly thoughtfully. Her singing was particularly expressive, strong and true in the many confrontational scenes; including an intense duet with Jane Seymour, during the course of which it is revealed that she is her rival. Donizetti’s over-extended last scene was naturally the high point of her performance as, having been possibly falsely condemned for betraying her husband, Anna begins to lose her sanity. Anna Netrebko sang her poignant sad aria warmly, vulnerably and with floating top notes. There was prolonged applause and she fleetingly came out of character to smile gently though this might have been the moment when the increasingly deluded Anna was recalling her happy days with her former lover – but somehow I doubt it. At the end of her ‘Mad Scene’, Anna curses the King and his new Queen and walks off to her execution after despatching a defiant cabaletta.
I assume this long opera could have been longer in its original form and that it has suffered many, often historical, cuts. Unfortunately these are not drastic enough as the story is well-told until the point when the King sends Anna, Percy, Rochefort and Smeaton to be executed but then everything unravels. The work then lives up to the paraphrased colloquialism of ‘It ain’t over while the fat lady is singing’. This is not a comment on the fact the Anna Netrebko is a size or two bigger than I remember her but that there are interminable unnecessary scenes between Jane Seymour and the King and Percy and Rochefort.
What concerned me most was David McVicar’s production; it was so very traditional and I wondered how an opera director, whose productions in Britain are steeped with controversial – often blood-soaked – imagery with much sex and nudity, can produce such a tame, traditional, production in the US. He was not present it seems to give his point of view in a backstage interview but costume designer, Jenny Tiramani, did talk about the historical realism of her detailed, elaborate, but often drably coloured, costumes. Robert Jones’s sets used a number of ever-present moving white brick walls and sliding wooden panels to create the appearance of Henry’s palaces. That was all there was, apart from for the King’s hunting party gathering in Act I where there were some grey skeletal trees and then we saw the appearance of a cloister during the final scene that sank below the stage to reveal Anne’s hooded executioner as the opera ended.
Everything could have come from any of the innumerable films and television programmes dramatising the Tudors. Anna Netrebko even shyly admitted to watching the recent equally fictionalised account of King Henry VIII’s life as portrayed by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Apart from making his singers interact fairly naturally most of the opera seemed semi-staged with the principals standing equidistant across the front of the stage with the chorus spread out behind them. Naturally this was perfect for Gary Halvorson’s direct and clear TV direction. A final point: the costumes might have been historically accurate but how correct was all the perfect makeup, hair and teeth on show?
Ekaterina Gubanova, was Jane (here Giovanna) Seymour and as the second of three Russians in the cast had a typically ample and dark-toned mezzo voice with a bit of a steely quality. She looked more like Holbein’s Anne of Cleves portrait than appearing child-like enough for the historical Jane. However she seemed suitably aghast at the King’s fumbling Act I assault on her and was suitably agitated in the wonderful Act II scene when she confesses to the Queen that she is King’s new mistress and will become his next wife. The bass Ildar Abdrazakov brought his idiomatically imposing Slavic voice to a suitably brutish Henry VIII (Enrico) though I don’t think this was to the benefit of his Italian diction. Stephen Costello was Lord Percy (Riccardo) and in this somewhat thankless role his youthful tenor voice portrayed his character’s adoration and ultimate anguish for Anna very well. His one significant aria, ‘Vivi tu’ is when he entreats Rochefort (solidly performed by Keith Miller) to accept the King’s pardon and go on living: it is particularly demanding and he sang this exceptionally well. Looking a ‘Size Zero’ in this company Tamara Mumford was a strident but ardent Smeaton and the stoic Eduardo Valdes as the jobsworth Hervey completed the cast. Every minor role is significant in this opera that is so rich with ensembles.
The chorus sounded on good form and the orchestra played well within the limits set for them for them by Marco Armiliato who sounded as if he did little to the music than make sure his singers were happy with the way he accompanied them. Since his Met debut in 1998 he has conducted more than 250 performances of 19 operas and I can imagine singers like him more than critics. While he has a clear understanding of the bel canto style and its need for arching lines, there seemed too little intensity in his interpretation and few risks were taken.
This was my very first visit to Waterloo’s IMAX cinema, its big screen is 20 metres high and 26 metres wide though not all was used for this broadcast. The results are very impressive and the state-of-the-art sound is excellent. Beware of sitting too close for opera broadcasts as everything is so huge in HD close-up that you can almost look down the singer’s throats and see what they had to eat before their matinee performance!
Check out your local cinema listings as the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD 2011-12 season continues as follows:
29 Oct: Mozart’s Don Giovanni
5 Nov: Wagner’s Siegfried
19 Nov: Glass’ Satyagraha
3 Dec: Handel’s Rodelinda
10 Dec: Gounod’s Faust
21 Jan: The Enchanted Island
11 Feb: Wagner’s Götterdämmerung
25 Feb: Verdi’s Ernani
7 April: Massenet’s Manon
14 April: Verdi’s La traviata