Pidò, Evelino


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.

FaustCharles Gounod - Faust

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Evelino Pidò, David McVicar, Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Michèle Losier, Daniel Grice, Carole Wilson | Live HD Broadcast, 28th September 2011

It’s not too difficult to see why Faust is considered one of the jewels of French grand opera, nor why, featuring as it does in no less than three opera houses in my viewing schedule this quarter up to Christmas (Covent Garden followed by the Paris Opéra and the Met in New York), it still remains a popular fixture in the repertoire of many major opera houses around the world. With a tragic love-story, whose content is boosted somewhat with a cruel encounter between evil and innocence, all wrapped up in a sense of religious fervour, the purpose of the storyline might deviate from the original intentions of Goethe’s classic tale, but it has all the right elements for a passionate opera subject.

The storyline however is actually the least convincing thing about Faust, but the emotional range covered across those Manichean divisons provide Charles Gounod with everything he needs to spin it out into a wonderful variety of musical arrangements. It opens with the aged scholar Faust despairing and disenchanted with a life devoted to study that has failed nonetheless to provide any great revelations or even meaning. Given the chance by the demon Méphistophélès to seek the pleasures elsewhere, it’s a vision of a beautiful young woman, Marguerite, that convinces Faust to enter into a bargain that will mean the loss of his eternal soul. The dark, nihilistic tone of the opening – the first word spoken by Faust is a bleak utterance of “Rien”, “Nothing” – gives way to a sense of joyous hedonism, conquest and seduction that stands in stark contrast to the daily lives and modest passions of ordinary people and soldiers going to war. By the end of the opera, each of those characters is judged for their actions.

Within that not particular complex or surprising storyline where, of course, virtue is rewarded, there is nonetheless a wealth of tones, moods, emotions and tempos, and Gounod gathers them together with the all the most wonderful arrangements available to a composer of grand opera. Filled with memorable tunes and famous arias, including Marguerite’s famous Jewel Song, Faust also contains a fabulous waltz, rousing marches, numerous choruses and a ballet – all of which never fail to sweep up the audience and get feet tapping. And if that’s the simple measure by which you judge any performance of Faust, David McVicar’s production for the Royal Opera House, with the superb playing of house orchestra under conductor Evelino Pidò, broadcast live in High Definition to cinemas across the UK and the world, was unquestionably a success.

Faust

I’ve never been particularly taken with David McVicar productions, failing to see much in the way of a convincing concept or even a personal touch in his style other than it usually being a hotchpotch of random and generic opera theatrics. That’s the case here with his production of Faust, but it’s a style that works quite well with this particular opera. There might be little to distinguish the all-purpose set, but with a couple of adjustments and a change of lighting it’s able to switch very effectively between a scholar’s study and a church with an organ or between a street-scene and a night-club cabaret. Even the random elements in the wings – the opera house boxes on the left, the pulpit on the right – provide space for nice little touches and coups de théâtre on a stage where there is always something interesting going on. The Act IV Walpurgis Night ballet was undoubtedly one of the high points of the staging, but McVicar’s one little perverse touch in this opera of having Méphistophélès dress as a woman in the scene where he shows Faust the queens of the world actually worked quite well. I would never have thought anyone could get away with putting René Pape in a dress and tiara, but it actually suits the nature of his character here perfectly.

The big selling-point for this particular production however is its top-flight cast that in addition to Pape as Méphistophélès, has Vittorio Grigolo as Faust, Angela Gheorgieu as Marguerite and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Valentin. If none of them are distinguished actors, you really couldn’t fault their singing. Each and every highpoint for their characters was reached and in most cases even surpassed. Grigolo started off slowly as the aging Faust, but more than came into his role as the younger rakish seductor (as he did when I last saw him in last year’s TV production of Rigoletto) while Pape, wearing a string of fine costumes was an appropriately magnetic and imposing presence in his demonic role.

Most impressive however was Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who really put a heart and soul into Valentin with an absolutely knock-out, spell-binding performance, but it was also helped by McVicar’s strong direction of his scenes, using the character for additional impact. Surprisingly, it was only the diva Angela Gheorghiu, who really failed to shine. She sang perfectly well, if somewhat underpowered in the role of Marguerite (a consequence perhaps of the cold that saw last Saturday’s live radio broadcast replaced by a recording?), but failed to find the right level to pitch an admittedly difficult character. Sometimes however, it’s difficult to differentiate whether she’s wrapped up in her character or just wrapped up in herself. All in all however, this was a fine production of Gounod’s classic, well up to the exceptionally high standards we’ve come to expect from the Royal Opera House.