Anna Bolena


Anna BolenaGaetano Donizetti - Anna Bolena

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2011 | Marco Armiliato, David McVicar, Anna Netrebko, Ekaterina Gubanova, Ildar Abdrazakov, Keith Miller, Stephen Costello, Eduardo Valdes, Tamara Mumford | Sky Arts, The Met Live in HD - Oct 15th 2011

The Metropolitan Opera in New York chose the first of Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy of operas, Anna Bolena, to open its 2011-12 season and also be the first of its Live in HD broadcasts for the season. With David McVicar now also directing Donizetto’s second Tudor opera Maria Stuarda for the 2012-13 season (broadcast this weekend Live in HD), and presumably in line to complete the trilogy with Roberto Devereux next season, it seemed a good point to catch up with the earlier production since it is currently available for viewing on the Sky Arts channel in the UK.

Moreso than the other two works in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy, and indeed unlike most bel canto historical period dramas - Lucrezia Borgia and I Puritani, for example - Anna Bolena is a work that uses its history as rather more than just a colourful backdrop for the usual romantic intrigues leading to betrayal and despair. Those elements are certainly a part of what makes the story of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, human and relatable, but Donizetti’s work also takes into consideration the wider historical perspective and nature of the characters - particularly in what is revealed about Henry from his earlier marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It also takes into account the vast historical impact and the constitutional crisis that his desire to dissolve his marriage to Anne Boleyn would have on the English nation.

The first Act of Donizetti’s opera, opening in the oppressive atmosphere of the court of Greenwich Castle, establishes the context exceptionally well. Courtiers mill around, wary of the evident problems in the royal marriage that hasn’t borne Henry a male heir, while Anne looks troubled, feels isolated, her thoughts dark and gloomy. Even her Smeaton’s love-song ballad - the pageboy in love with the Queen himself - only reminds Anne of the way love can go wrong. Yet, she still can’t sense the guilt that is weighing upon Jane Seymour, or the seriousness of the threat that is posed by her lady-in-waiting’s affair with the King. Henry promises Jane “a husband, a sceptre, a throne”, but for Jane her personal sense of shame can only be alleviated by the legitimacy of marriage and that will come at a price. In order to break with Anne, Henry recalls the exiled Richard Percy, believing he can find justification in Percy’s prior relationship with Anne Boleyn to annul the marriage, but the unexpected presence of the love-struck Smeaton in Anne’s bedchamber gives Henry the opportunity to go even further.

The dilemma is laid out very clearly in Felice Romano’s libretto, but even more so in Donizetti’s brooding score which captures all of the drama and the dark foreboding of what lies ahead. That needs to come across in the setting as well as in the music and the singing performances, and by and large David McVicar’s production manages to get to the heart of those sentiments. It’s resolutely period in setting and somewhat stiffly arranged, the sets amounting to nothing more really than walls and doors - big doors, mind you - but this is an opera that works as a piece, a work driven by the dramatic flow rather than adhering to the standard bel canto number format, and the director manages to maintain a consistency of tone and purpose, allowing room for manoeuvre and expression over and beyond the words in the singing and in the coloratura of the singing. And for that you need exceptional singing talent.

The singing here, while very good across all the roles and showing no fatal weaknesses, was however not what you’d call exceptional. Ekaterina Gubanova perhaps comes across best as Jane Seymour, singing well and with feeling, making you really care about her character’s predicament and even pitying her not only for being in love with a nasty figure like Henry, but for having to admit it to Anne. She is very convincing in her dilemma, and her confession scene with Anna Netrebko’s Anna is consequently one of the best scenes in this production. Evidently however, all eyes are on Netrebko, but for the most part she is curiously stiff and even strangely vacuous, never delivering a performance as good as the one she delivered in this role in Vienna only a few months earlier (available on Blu-ray and DVD). When it’s needed however, she really gets her voice behind the extreme emotions and anguish of Anna Boleyn, if not always finding the variety of expression required in the coloratura, and even on occasion sounding a little hoarse on the high notes. Often it just sounds forced and operatically mannered, which is not something I’ve heard before in Netrebko’s usually more expressive and considered delivery.

Bearing the weight of history and a role that could so easily be simplified into an operatic ‘baddie’, it’s tough to bring any kind of degree of humanity and realism to the role of Henry. Donizetti and Romani recognise however that there is a man behind the crown (”May Henry be kind, even if the King is cruel”) and they rather brilliantly capture that in the music and the libretto. It’s particularly relevant in scene when Henry realises that Boleyn was “Percy’s wife. Before Henry” and in his subsequent scene with Jane Seymour that seals Anne’s fate, the whole sequence epitomising and encapsulating Henry’s attitude, his male pride, his kingly pride and the realisation that he can use that information and privileged position to his advantage. These are crucial scenes to the work where a singer has to make Henry’s dangerous authority and his ability to command a situation clear. Donizetti certainly nails it in the music, and fortunately so does Ildar Abdrazakov in the singing here.

Stephen Costello doesn’t have the most melodic tone as Percy, but is firm and steady and his singing is not without considerable feeling for the role. The importance of Mark Smeaton shouldn’t be underestimated in this opera and fortunately it was well-cast with Tamara Mumford in the trouser role, and the part was well-directed by David McVicar. There’s a sense of the bloody reality of Henry’s reign brought home in Smeaton’s confession under torture, McVicar bringing a certain realism that emphasises the horror of the situation and the brutality of the period. That’s balanced however with a rather more delicate touch in the symbolic fall of a blood red curtain at the execution scene. It’s the little touches that often count with McVicar and he brought them to bear effectively where they were most needed in a work that elsewhere didn’t quite have the urgency of the Vienna production.

BolenaGaetano Donizetti - Anna Bolena

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna 2011 | Evelino Pidò, Eric Génovèse, Anna Netrebko, Elīna Garanča, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Francesco Meli, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Elisabeth Kulman, Peter Jelosits | Deutsche Grammaphon

The first of Donizetti’s operas to be a major international success, Anna Bolena is a tragedia lirica that sets the tone for a number of subsequent works in the same dark, historical vein – Lucrezia Borgia and the two other operas that comprise the composer’s Tudor trilogy, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux. First performed in 1830 and reflecting perhaps the revolutionary spirit of the times – the depiction of Henry VIII here is in marked contrast to that of the merciful Metastasian kings of the past – these works differ considerably in tone from the now mostly forgotten comedy works by Donizetti that preceded them (and indeed from the more popular but considerably better written comic works that followed such as L’Elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale), but the qualities and the value of Anna Bolena as a key work of the composer itself haven’t always been recognised either. It took an astonishing performance from Maria Callas in her prime in Milan in 1957, in a Luchino Visconti production, to once again bring this particular work to the attention of the opera-going public, and with it a newfound appreciation for Donizetti’s work.

In some ways, with this new production at the Vienna State Opera in 2011, followed by its appearance on the stage at the Met in New York (two different productions but both featuring Anna Netrebko in the title role), Anna Bolena is again proving to be a key work leading to a rediscovery and re-evaluation of Donizetti as being more than just a composer of bel canto, but one capable of developing works with considerable dramatic power and unexpected depth of character. I can’t think of any soprano at the moment who would be capable of drawing new depths in the work in the way Callas did dramatically, but in terms of star-power and personality, as well as having a voice of great substance to match, Anna Netrebko is among the very the best we have for this kind of role. The Vienna production consequently might not be quite such a revelation this time around, but it’s a creditable performance nonetheless that brings out the true qualities of the work, and often it’s even quite exhilaratingly impressive.

Bolena

Everything good that can be learned by the master Rossini is evident here in the disciple’s work, and it’s also possible to see the huge influence that Donizetti’s treatment of historical and romantic intrigues in Anna Bolena would have on Verdi’s mature works, and not just the early ones. I recently noted the use of duets in Donizetti’s late work Linda di Chamounix, but the dramatic and lyrical strengths of Anna Bolena also lie in such ensemble work, creating a fevered intensity to the love duets and to the confrontations between rivals, but creating additional complexity to the arrangements through quartets, quintets and choral work of remarkable power that carry those contradictory emotions and pronouncements. While such moments are hammered home to great effect and underscored by dark menacing tones, Donizetti’s sense of melody is also just as evident here as in the more tender moments and arias. Those elements are superbly brought out by Evelino Pidò and the orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper, the drive of the musical forces being one of the most impressive aspects of this production (and one, I’m pleased to say, that is audible with remarkable detail and dynamism in the High Definition audio channels of the Blu-ray release).

Since the casting and singing is also of an extraordinarily high quality, it’s disappointing then that the stage direction by Eric Génovèse is so rigidly traditional. There is the merest suggestion of the courtly interiors of Windsor Castle, the same mostly fixed location adapted to a throne-room, a courtyard or a park as required, which at least means that there is a fluidity between scenes even if what takes place in them is largely static. It is of course difficult to stage such bel canto works, which are not terribly active dramatically, but the director here finds no imaginative solution, eye-catching arrangements or sets, leaving the performers to stride up and down the stage in the absence of anything much else to do. The costume design is at least impressive, enough to give the production some sense of dramatic realism, and the stage is brightly lit (perhaps with a few additional spotlights for the TV cameras), or at least the stars are well lit to shine brightly against the rather drab backgrounds.

And “stars” is not an accidental choice of words either, because they were undoubtedly the main attraction of this production, generating a great deal of press interest and commanding incredible prices for ticket sales. In the end, they all certainly live up to and almost justify the hype. Anna Netrebko in particular brings great presence to the role of Anne Boleyn. She’s not always the most convincing in the bel canto repertoire – although as Norina in another recent Donizetti role for the Metropolitan Opera’s Don Pasquale, she was outstanding – and this particular role represents a considerable challenge. It’s not just that Netrebko is following in the footsteps of so many great singers who have taken on the role in the past, from Guiditta Pasta – the original Anna B. – through to Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, and unlikely to be able to stand up to the comparison, but her performance in this role also in a way represented more of a personal milestone that would consolidate her standing or define her limitations. In the event, her performance here kind of does both, but it must primarily be judged a great success.

Bolena

Netrebko’s performance of Anna Bolena is a mixed one, but such is her own force of personality and tone of voice that comparisons to other singers soon fall by the wayside, allowing her performance in the role to be judged on its own terms. At times she does seem to be absent from the character, her voice not quite capable either of reaching those deeper emotional depths, failing to find any colour or personality in a scene, but at other times – notably in her duet with Elīna Garanča’s Jane Seymour where she identifies her rival, and in her final death scene – she suddenly seems to let fly with superb control and genuine passion (the same mixed qualities incidentally could also be said applied to Donizetti’s writing for this particular work). She’s at least never anything less than compelling and commanding whenever she is on the stage, the viewer captivated by how she is going to deal with any given scene. The other principals are no less impressive, Garanča in particular entering fully into character and rising to the challenges it represents dramatically and vocally, while Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is a solid and convincing Enrico (Henry VIII). Francesco Meli’s Percy is also worthy of mention, genuinely impassioned and of sound vocal ability, if not always in perfect time with the conductor. Elisabeth Kulman also makes a strong impression in the lesser but vital role of Smeton.

The quality of the Blu-ray release of the 2011 Wiener Staatsoper production of Anna Bolena from Deutsche Grammaphon is outstanding. Filmed for the screen by Brian Large, the veteran opera screen director does well to make the most of the limited dramaturgy and stage movements, the strong lighting making this look just marvellous. The audio tracks, LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, are, as I mentioned earlier, astounding. There such great depth, dynamic and detail audible in the playing of the orchestra, as well as in the singing that you can’t help but be impressed by the performances. In terms of extra features, there are only brief introductions to each of the two acts in German by Elīna Garanča. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, Spanish and French.