01 Nov 2011
Anna Bolena, Metropolitan Opera
It’s very unusual for the Met these days—or any major opera house, in any era—to present a glossy new production with two different stars in the leading role.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
It’s very unusual for the Met these days—or any major opera house, in any era—to present a glossy new production with two different stars in the leading role.
Giving seven performances of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, in its first Met outing, with internationally glamorous Anna Netrebko followed by three more (not just one or two!) with a very different singer, rising bel canto star Angela Meade, a local girl with a large local following, has been a very happy choice. For one thing, this is a huge role in a little-known opera; it was insurance for the house to have a cover available, and any soprano capable of singing it well deserves a few chances to show what she can do. I’d heard what Netrebko’s version on the air from Vienna last spring, then by way of the Met web site’s free player on opening night here, and again by way of the HDTV movie theater showing at the BAMRose cinema in Brooklyn. On October 24, I attended Meade’s second Bolena in the house.
Ildar Abdrazakov as Enrico
Anna Bolena is perhaps the longest prima donna role in any of Donizetti’s operas—and Anna may be his longest work, fully four hours of music if uncut. It was his first hit in Milan (and, later, beyond the Alps), composed in 1830 after a busy decade in Naples, the capital of a different country at that time. He was determined to make an impression with a vehicle for Milan’s reigning singing actress, Giuditta Pasta. The role may lack the emotional spectrum of Bellini’s Norma, composed for the same singer a year later, but she had plenty to do: a double aria sortita, three highly charged duets (with mezzo, tenor and bass), a passionate trio, two full-scale ensembles, and a famous mad scene that ranges elaborately from pathos to rage. Canary coloraturas—this is not for you.
Overheard all about me in the crowd at the Met and at BAM: “This is such a wonderful opera! With such lovely music! Why has the Met never done it before?” If beautiful music and thrilling vocal drama were all that mattered, the Met has only scraped the surface of the nineteenth century’s possibilities, to say nothing of the eighteenth. In part, it’s a matter of fashion. By the time the Met was built, in 1883, dramatic coloratura vehicles were largely a thing of the past. Of Donizetti’s dozens of successful serious operas, only Lucia survived the stylistic change wrought by Verdi and his successors. Callas brought Anna Bolena back from a century’s obscurity in 1957, but she didn’t sing it often, bequeathing the La Scala production to Leyla Gencer. Caballé sang it just once, and acknowledged a rare failure. Sutherland did not tackle it till she was fifty-seven, far too late to make much of the character. Souliotis recorded it, unevenly as usual, but the recording has its partisans. Sills was New York’s Anna: she triumphed in it for a couple of seasons at the City Opera. Krassimira Stoyanova sang Bolena in a drastically cut concert version with Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York, and was spectacular in the raging fioritura of the “Giudici” scene—the opera came to life for me then as it never had before. She has not sung it anywhere since, perhaps because she lacks secure high notes: Anna ranges all over the scale. You might say she sings her head off.
Ekaterina Gubanova as Giovanna Seymour
Everyone remembers that Henry VIII wished to be rid of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had not borne him a son, and that the pope’s unwillingness to grant an annulment drove Henry, an opponent of Luther’s Reformation, to renounce papal supremacy. His passion for Anne Boleyn, which was quite genuine (their love letters have been set to music), was at first incidental to his wish to marry anyone capable of giving him a male heir, but Anne, in addition, was part of the clique forwarding Protestant reform. She was a highly attractive, sharp-tongued, neurotic femme fatale, capable of inspiring both passion and hatred, and when her sons, like Catherine’s, did not live (her daughter Elizabeth, of course, did), Henry turned against her brutally. She was accused of assorted adulteries (high treason for a queen), and sent to the block, to her great surprise (no one had beheaded a queen before). That was in 1536. In Italy three centuries later no one gave a hang about Protestant disputes, and the opera boils down to a marriage gone bad and the trap laid by a brutal husband to catch his wife in flagrante duetto. That’s an easy story for any audience to grasp, as is the prima donna unjustly done to death.
Whether Anna ever really loved Henry and if she still does are questions never mentioned in the libretto; this deprives her of a necessary dimension of tragedy (if she did), or exculpates him (if she did not). Perhaps Donizetti felt he had enough plot to set without facing such a question.
David McVicar’s production is large and dark, as if one look at the five-story-high stage of the Met overwhelmed any sense of proportion. Getting the proper atmosphere should not require such “authenticity.” I missed the light touch Ming Cho Lee brought to the City Opera’s Tudor trilogy: A tapestry down from the flies, a central playing area, a grand fireplace, an occasional throne or dungeon chamber, and there we had it: Instant Tudor! At the Met, Robert Jones’s sets look like the drearier rooms in a manor of the period—not the ornate court rooms!—and they are two or three times too high. They are vaguely historical backdrops, but they lack the color of backdrops. Jenny Tiramani’s costumes, too, may well be in period—I do not challenge that they are—but surely not everyone wore black and gray at a brilliant Renaissance court. The chorus, homogenous enough in Donizetti anyway, becomes a singing wainscot. The hunting forest, too, is gray, and the triple-arched corridor of the last act is simple to the point of self-effacing. Only the appearance of the swordsman at the end, Anna’s fate, seems to attempt a visual coup, and the music ignores him, focused by this point entirely on Anna.
Stephen Costello as Lord Percy and Keith Miller as Lord Rochefort
Anna Netrebko has a large and beautiful voice and can be a most affecting actress, but her voice never seems as at home in Italian music as it did when she sang Russian roles like Ludmila and Natasha. In bel canto, she suffers from imperfect agility and a nasal delivery that does not breathe with the music. The greatest bel canto artists school themselves to breathe in exactly the phrases the composers wrote, so that the melody, ornamented or not, becomes a melodious kind of speech, a vernacular poetry. I suspect Russian singers are trained to breathe differently in their own ancient church-based tradition, and very few of them escape it when singing western music, however beautiful the instrument itself. This is my problem with Galina Vishnevskaya’s Puccini, Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Verdi and Ekaterina Gubanova’s Donizetti. A few Russian divas, such as Olga Borodina and Ljuba Petrova, seem to have surmounted this awkwardness; Netrebko has not. Too, I find her affect too heavy for Bolena, and on the Opening Night broadcast she was under pitch for much of the long night. This may be attributed to the strenuous rehearsal process and first-night jitters: By the HDTV broadcast nearly three weeks later, she was on pitch throughout, her voice in charge and easily produced. She has always been a fine actress, and a queen in distress suits her very well. Though I enjoyed her Vienna broadcasts of Bellini’s Giulietta and Amina very much, as sheer, lovely sound, my personal preference would be to hear this sensuous instrument in a more rewarding vehicle, such as Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. That’s a role that rewards a heavy, beautiful voice, and when did we last hear such a soprano attempt it? She’d be glorious.
I have heard Angela Meade as Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani, Rossini’s Semiramide and Bellini’s Norma. The voice is sizable over an exceptional range, but she wields it prettily, with genuine trills, a lovely legato and soft but clear singing in the higher ranges that falls on the ear with special grace. She is a rather stout woman, neither a beauty nor a natural actress, but as Bolena, who must present her tormented emotions over nearly four hours, she displayed impressive theatrical skill. In Act I, she was regal and apprehensive, moving with a dignified posture; after her accusation and trial, she seemed a much older woman, aged and bent by the storm. Her madness was distracted and appealing. She did not imitate the glamorous Netrebko’s highly personal gestures and expressions (the reminiscent smile, the turn away from the audience for the final note), but made the role her own within the restrictions of an existing production and cast.
Tamara Mumford as Smeton
As a singer, Meade takes a while to warm up. In the first act, she seemed rather to hover over the notes; there was no depth to them, and she seemed merely to touch the highest notes and drop them. By the lengthy duet with Stephen Costello’s Percy, however—Donizetti’s Act II, but the last scene of Act I at the Met, where the opera is given with just one intermission—and the great “Giudici” ensemble that follows, she had her musical feet on the floor. Her duet with Ekaterina Gubanova’s Jane Seymour brought the thrilling days of Sutherland and Horne to mind. As Meade demonstrated in Ernani, she knows how to preserve her resources through a long night. By the long concluding scene, she was in her element, tremendously affecting in the sweet singing of “Al dolce guidami,” and then, with a terrific drop to almost threatening depths that exploded in the anger of “Coppia iniqua,” her final denunciation, a dramatic coloratura at last. The soprano who cannot make this scene her own is not a proper Bolena; Netrebko, too, was fully in charge here.
Gubanova is a Russian mezzo in the grand tradition of Arkhipova and Obastzova, but the Met can’t seem to figure out what to do with her—or such others of the ilk as Diadkova and Smirnova, the latter miscast in Don Carlo. Gubanova is a superb Berlioz Didon (as she has demonstrated at Carnegie Hall under Gergiev) and a superb Gluck Clytemnestre (under Muti in Rome), but she has had some difficulty forcing herself into the molds called for at the Met. To be fair, she only took on the role of Jane Seymour when Elina Garanca, who sang it gorgeously in Vienna, pulled out due to pregnancy, and if her sortita and its ornaments were messy, her duets with King Henry (desperate) and Anna (poignant) had a happy intensity. Her voice mingles well with Meade’s. But I wish they’d stage something Russian for her to sink her palpable artistic teeth into—or Gluck’s Alceste.
Stephen Costello’s once light and liquid tenor is developing grit and strength. This may forfeit some of his airy elegance, but will position him for the forceful tenor roles of later Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, the basic Italian repertory. He made a handsome, credible figure in the far from credible role of Lord Percy, Anna’s old boyfriend. Slim Tamara Mumford sang another of her plummy performances, with a freer command of line up top than usual, in the trouser role of the importunate minstrel, Smeton. Ildar Abdrazakov was formidable in the somewhat underwritten (no aria) role of King Henry. His dark bass must believably threaten each of the other characters in turn or the plot makes no sense. In the present instance, the quailing of cast and chorus before him was believable. Shaven-headed Keith Miller, such a treat as Zuniga in recent Carmens, was impressive as Anna’s hapless brother, Rochefort.
Marco Armiliato, whose conducting on opening night has been criticized, certainly did not make the score sound shorter than it is, but he was attentive to vocal line and Donizetti’s favorite “British” effect, dark strings underscored by horns, rang out threateningly, gothicly, throughout the night.