“Anna Bolena,” Donizetti’s melodious setting of Anne Boleyn’s last moments on earth, opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday in a new production featuring Anna Netrebko and two handsome Irish wolfhounds who helped us get through one very tedious scene.
When Henry VIII finally told his exhausted court he was leaving to go do some hunting in Windsor Park, one dog drooled a little and the other collapsed into a snooze.
Boredom was hard to fight off as the hours ground on in this first hearing of “Anna Bolena” at the Met since its world premiere in 1830. Not helping was conductor Marco Armiliato, who didn’t reach his customary velocity until the second act.
What a staid, stately show this is, stuffed with expensively puffed period costumes by Jenny Tiramani and directed by David McVicar, whose last staging for the Met was the more electric “Il trovatore.”
Perhaps every singer should be given a critter by Met manager Peter Gelb, who was possibly misguided in thinking these performers could get through such an ornamented masterpiecelet all by themselves.
Even Netrebko, a Russian diva with a big following, was a pallid presence in the first act, though she did come alive as the executioner loomed.
He needs to arrive earlier.
The Met performs “Anna Bolena” in an edition that opens up too many traditional cuts, most obviously a prison aria for foolish Percy, whose pursuit of the queen condemns them both.
Stephen Costello, an attractive young tenor with a nice ping to his voice, gasped for high notes in a long song that didn’t need to be aired in the first place. He seemed terrified. Why put him through this torture?
These bel canto works from the early 19th century demand technique, imagination and the artistry to find the heart beating inside cascading coloratura.
Which brings me to Maria Callas (1923-77). In 1957, the Greek-American diva and future yacht ornament of Ari Onassis, triumphed in a fabled La Scala production directed by Luchino Visconti and starring another legend, Giulietta Simionato, as Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, who will take her place on the throne.
The live recording shows Callas’s spellbinding artistry and eerie voice at the height of her career. Just listen to the YouTube clips of “Coppia Iniqua” (vile couple), in which Anna rails against Henry, Jane Seymour and her own fate.
Leyla Gencer, Beverly Sills and Edita Gruberova all left souvenirs of their ability to transform lots of little notes into searing drama.
Netrebko’s cool, uninflected voice isn’t meant for Donizetti. Here is music that requires more pathos and individuality than is hers to give, though there were times when she certainly met the challenge.
In particular, I liked her way with “Giudici! Ad Anna?” when the frightened queen confronts the king who has condemned her to be judged.
Director McVicar has a rare talent for moving crowds. Especially Anna’s ladies-in-waiting were handled with skill. And, aided by that supreme mistress of mood, lighting designer Paule Constable, he heightened the sense of foreboding that soaks the huge sets by Robert Jones. They change constantly, offering new vistas of doors, walls and scary guards.
The grayness of the walls did get wearying after a few hours, and the last scene featuring a surprising appearance by Darth Vader as the executioner, might be rethought.
Ultimately, the scenes that so often failed to ignite involved Ildar Abdrazakov as Henry and Ekaterina Gubanova, a curiously mousy Jane Seymour.
Abdrazakov probably had the most affinity for his difficult music, despite a weak bottom range, but the mezzo’s metallic timbre was utterly wrong for Jane’s melting phrases. That’s not her fault. How many singers can say no to an opening-night offer at the Met?
Memorable, however, was Tamara Mumford, who brought presence and a warm tone to the musician Smeaton. When she staggered in after a bloody session with the torturer, we got a jarring glimpse into the horror of Henry’s court. The show might have offered more.
The performance on Saturday, Oct. 15, will be transmitted to participating movie houses. Bloomberg LP provides global corporate sponsorship for “The Met: Live in HD.”
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)