Sat 19 Jan 2013
Gaetano 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.