Anna Bolena, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, October 2011Posted on 16 October 2011
This was the work that finally put Donizetti on the map. Having already produced over thirty operas in Italy, he suddenly became famous across Europe after the first performance in Milan on 26 December 1830.
The first Anna was the amazing soprano Giuditta Pasta, who less than three months later created the role of Amina in La Sonnambula, and exactly one year later on 26 December 1831, the role of Norma, all in Milan. Italian operas in what later became known as the bel canto style were all the rage at the time, but they went out of fashion in the late nineteenth century, and a serious revival had to wait until after the Second World War. By that time Anna Bolena was a forgotten work. It needed a great soprano, and when Maria Callas raised the possibility of reviving it at the Met, Rudolf Bing dismissed it as “an old bore of an opera”. Fortunately La Scala was willing, and with Visconti as producer, Gavazzeni in the orchestra pit, and Callas in the main role, it was a huge success — the live recording was issued by EMI.
Now we have Anna Netrebko as Anne Boleyn, and what a queen she is. Sincere, emotional, and not to be trifled with, though that’s exactly what her husband Henry VIII does, setting her up to sweep her aside in favour of her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. After all the emotion of meeting her previous lover Percy she is still ready to give a powerful rendering to “Ah! segnata è la mia sorte” (Ah, my fate is sealed) at the end of Act I, seeing the prospect of her accuser (the king) being the one who condemns her. Percy was brilliantly sung by Stephen Costello, his high tenor having a heroic timbre, and the wretched Smeton (Mark Smeaton), a twenty-four year old musician who is secretly in love with the queen, was convincingly portrayed by Tamara Mumford. As for the king himself, Ildar Abdrazakov sang this bass role with excellent gravitas, and demonstrated power and cunning in equal measure. The role of Jane (Giovanna) Seymour was sung by Ekaterina Gubanova, whose voice was quite different from Ms. Netrebko, and the Met did well to produce such a strong contrast.
In Act II it only got better, and Anna Netrebko came through with the emotions every time. So sincere in her soliloquy as she sings of how Catherine of Aragon was wronged, yet suddenly when Jane Seymour tells her she can save her own life by admitting guilt, she is furious, easily winning the exchange between the two women while not yet knowing that Jane is her rival in the king’s affections. The nobility of Anne and Percy shone through in the sincerity of their singing, and it’s hard not to feel that Henry VIII was a rogue, but then … he was an immensely powerful monarch, and David McVicar’s production emphasises this very well. In Act I as Percy returns from exile at the king’s wish, and bends to kiss the monarch’s hand he whips it away at the last minute.
Details like this help create a convincing atmosphere for this historical tale of two of the six wives of Henry VIII. For those unfamiliar with the list, just remember: divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. Anne Boleyn was beheaded and Jane Seymour later died after giving birth to the king’s only son, the future Edward VI.
Musically this was a wonderful team effort with Marco Armiliato in the orchestra pit, but it was of course Anna Netrebko who gave it the diva touch. Congratulations to the Met for broadcasting it, and for extending their relays to Russia, which is highly appropriate in this case as the three main roles were sung by Russians!