The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Met in HD: Austerely set, dark Slavic cast Anna Bolena (Met debut) opens 2011-12 season. Anna Netrebko. Marco Armiliato. 15.10.11.

A first ever production of Donizetti’s tragedy Anna Bolena, with some pomp, opened the Met’s 2011-2012 season September 26th; repeat October 15th became first presentation in new Met in HD season to cinemas nation, worldwide – also toward showing off hometown girl made good to cinemas in Russia for its first season there. Domestically, Anna Netrebko introducing her Anna Bolena to the Met was much anticipated, following successful role debut last spring in Vienna (now on DGG dvd).

There is some grandiosity, real splendor to anticipate, at least hope for in attending any performance of Anna Bolena. Even with shortcomings of how the Met has presented this, it was still valuable to have attended this, just for what work it is – that alone erasing doubts I sustained until day before the November 2nd repeat viewing of October 15th.

Peter Gelb, interviewing Netrebko before first curtain, spoke of Anna Bolena as part of a trilogy, hopefully to also have Netrebko star as Maria Stuarda and as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. Given how varied, challenging are each of these roles, it likely is prudent Netrebko has thus far declined to commit to any more than just Anna Bolena thus far. David McVicar, plausibly in awe of having picked up Netrebko at least for this, has produced it, having prepared doing so quite substantially as star vehicle for her. Along with narrow perspective provided, this perception may have become crutch upon which rest several other shortcomings.

Windsor Castle appeared an oppressively dark, austere place in which to conduct affairs. Luxurious pillows Anna reclines upon with young daughter Elisabeth and accompanying courtly frolic, gossip helped provide early fleeting moment of relief. Tower of London cell in Act Two got better lit than several socially prominent gatherings. Striving here aimed for emotional truth, simplicity by stripping away much bark, good enveloping, so to speak. Stodginess perhaps became a little greater for only getting to see little of world dramatis personae here inhabit, according to any greater expectations, moreover to unabashed Romanticism into which Donizetti’s music - still following somewhat closely model of Rossini - invites us. Persona of the diva Donizetti indeed makes center stage also got compromised, with Anna Netrebko decked out very often in awkwardly fitting, assembled garb. James Jorden’s exhaustive column on practically this issue alone makes highly amusing (and insightful) reading.

Sets for Peter Genovese’s production at Staatsoper Wien were quite austere too, but with practically luxuriant lighting chiaroscuro - vernally accented silken gowns for Netrebko and Elina Garanca (originally announced Seymour for the Met), complementing very well both figures, to match. Men costuming wise at the Met, Smeton (Tamara Mumford) on down, were better accommodated. Increasingly Holbein style appearance of Enrico served very well, then also of Hervey (the always reliable Eduardo Valdes). Enrico, affecting sexual assault on Giovanna Seymour early on during Act One, toward getting his way with her, looked simultaneously vulgar, timid, confused.

Gray inlay solid firm, weathered brick filled out heavy canopy of wood and stone - best one could make out through the dim lighting. Meager light for opening scene shimmered through narrow thinly slatted window panels. Opening out of set at stage rear for Windsor Castle park offered some relief – launch pad in effect for royal entourage to embark on hunting diversion or operatically affect doing so. Giant, lean, steely cold tree stalks descended from the ceiling, with then two giant poodle hounds accompanying entourage. Next thing you know, some giant (genetically mutated?) banana, grapefruit or celery stalk might then roll out , should anyone complain early on of getting famished - such as Miles Monroe very readily offers a chronically bitching abducted Diane Keaton in classic 1970’s sci-fi parody.

Organization of people moving about was all reasonably effective. Past silly moment between Henry VIII and Jane already mentioned, no further gaffes became too memorable. However capable individual cast members were of acting their parts, determined how effective interaction was at any given point – without glaring sense of major figures on stage being left to their own devices. Reasoning I hesitate to resort to however is that even in this very modern (and austerely budgeted – often selectively) day and age, what affects the eye can also affect the ear, including for singers on stage. Getting past that, attention can now turn to artist taking center stage – Anna Netrebio.

With good looks diminished more than how one recalls seeing Netrebio before, October satellite beamed matinee emerged better however than opening night. Acting, compared with how she appeared in Vienna, looked stiffer – toward reliably reflecting narrow world, perspective inhabited, as David McVicar offers us. Vocal production last spring was more open, fluid, employing more legato – resulting in significantly better intonation than in this first Met run. Equally unyielding as the set design was the often rigid, intermittently clumsy conducting of Marco Armiliato – particularly unyielding to singers at good handful of critical junctures.

Gaetano Donizetti makes Anne Boleyn quite a multi-faceted character. His music offers effectively, quixotically an Anne girlish naïve, anguished over personal guilt in her having had to take Catherine of Aragon’s place, defiantly incisive for defending her honor – especially while confronting Enrico but also midway incidentally during private audience granted Jane Seymour. Noble heights then should get reached for potentially heartrending pardon of Giovanna, then moral resolve in accepting her fate while insisting on defending her honor - toward phase of Anna’s wandering in and out of lucidity – such dramatically that Netrebko interpreted halfway well, perhaps still somewhat generically

Donizetti never came up with a more moving heroine, one filled out with more nobly achieved, yet comparatively simply adorned lyricism – especially during final scene – than Anne Wide psychological and musical range any soprano must encompass to sing this makes it unlikely that Donizetti offered divas any greater challenge. The more inward turning Maria Stuarda, more evenly sublime, comes across as some respite, while still being very aesthetically demanding.

Netrebko’s countenance overall generically looked unsettled – for brief reflection on how sad and taciturn Jane first appears and for affection towards Enrico upon first greeting him. Impetus here was to attempt building upon previous achievement across the pond – toward infusing Anne with more tragic weight, gravitas. Extra effort applied tended more to obscure than to illuminate matters however. Opening pair of arias best exemplified problems to afflict Netrebko most of the way through Act One. Thick production, wodge right around the break, and unstable reach for what lies above seriously compromised both phrasing and intonation. Things here started out way too heavy, especially given the natural lighter timbre of Netrebko’s voice, seriously compromising grasp of Donizetti’s internally varied melodic cantabile that on its own, builds, through variety of nuance, much character. Much snatching of extra breaths demonstrated much lapse in good judgment here. Semaphoring to Percy to discourage his doing anything rash and impetuous embrace of Enrico both looked stiff, awkward.

‘In quegli sguardi, cantabile during Act One extended finale, de-tethered both intonation and phrasing wise, but fortunately hardly any awkward moment occurred after that. Forceful cabaletta to this finale and then ‘Coppia iniqua’ that both meant rough sailing opening night became better focused, forceful this time. Netrebko fortunately restored some measure of poise, dignity for the equally challenging Second Act. Scene, trio with Percy, Enrico, especially in terms of confronting Enrico registered focused, dramatically succinct. Lyrical cantabile’s during extended finale, albeit without intonation being one hundred percent, brought out best the qualities that distinguished Netrebko’s Vienna run from this run at the Met. Establishing, making ring true the emotional journey Donzietti embarks his heroine upon during scena with Giovanna Seymour became muted here.

Stephen Costello, for which press had generated higher hopes, turned in for especially the first half a disappointing Percy. Written for Rubini, legendary for his brilliant Rossini, Donzietti supplied him the acuti, but perhaps not as much the opportunity for display – replacing it with more forceful rhetoric – as might have best flattered Rubini’s gifts. His Act One pair of arias always gets transposed down, putting much of its tessitura right below the break – where Costello sounded most comfortable entire evening long High notes carried sufficient ring, but right below, tone became thin, phrasing stiff – runs somewhat raw and poutish appearance hardly more ingratiating. Netrebko and Costello did not succeed in matching voices well until into Act Two terzetto together. Recitative into prison scene with Rochefort fortunately sounded less comprimario than such during Act One, as did Vivi tu’ flexibly molded, securing more convincing dramatic stance for Percy’s last important appearance on stage. Keith Miller made sympathetic, but hardly authoritative presence needed as Rochefort.

Ekaterina Gubanova proved perhaps slightly miscast as Giovanna Seymour. Agility over many florid runs was good, singing in middle register(s) always even, but until Act Two, upper reaches produced a bit glassy in quality and low notes somewhat swallowed, weak. Playing Seymour slightly disproportionately as fully sympathetic, as very sincere Gubanova is, registered awkwardly – and motivated especially through gran scena with Netrebko something approaching an incipient whine, distracting focus. Elina Garanca, even with somewhat glib, guarded countenance, issued forth more convincingly Jane Seymour’s complexity, in a way moreover the quite openly duplicitous character of her emotions. Anne’s pardon of Jane, also for the more compelling simplicity of Netrebko’s manner in Vienna to then match with both Garanca and Evelino Pido’s better filling out of accompaniment, became something more meaningful there. Through heroically approached, conquered Act Two (mostly) solo scena, Gubanova achieved an attractively compelling, successful Second Act.

Some baggage this new production carried along with it that may have encumbered even Gubanova hardly afflicted the Enrico (Ildar Abdrazakov) and Smeton (Tamara Mumford) at all. Abadrazkov made up for dry tone obstructing some of his efforts almost fully by imaginative phrasing, most of all good acting, and sufficient agility to make, insinuate very well runs, arpeggios to fill out line between much stern declamation, and conniving much subtly declaimed insinuation as well. The handsome swagger, utter haughtiness, cruelty while keeping intact Enrico’s humanity – was always compelling - menacingly with ‘In separato carcere’ - big moment helping usher in stormy cabaletta (Netrebko) ending Act One among handful of good ones.

Tamara Mumford, as boy Smeton –good model for Ratmir in Glinka’s Ruslan (that Irina Verbitskaya sensually made smolder from early postwar Bolshoi what can easily otherwise sound distracted) – best approximated emulating Verbitskaya here. Mumford might plausibly become the Met’s next Seymour several seasons hence. Coltish, boyish charm carrying forth, unencumbered lightness, insinuatingly nuanced agility Mumford invested fully made the case for Smeton being both musically and dramatically relevant. Smeton entering during second Act Two chorus had Mumford appear as though having just been let out from Abu Ghraib – but not stealing dignity from how Mumford infused her closing lines moments before ‘Coppia iniqua’ sallied forth.

Obtrusive, not so much pretentiously, more than helpful was Marco Armiliato’s stiff, unimaginative leadership. Mild sympathy for the idiom manifested itself with competent ability to keep things moving, maintain ensemble. Such however, even though common, does not really suffice at making the case. Abetting having Costello slam into the arioso (‘Ei vive’) anticipating his First Act arias was however one really awkward moment.

Compartmentalizing downbeat and pacing undercut great scene making confront two divas - then great equalizer of sorts, so to speak. Pido, better elucidating grasp of form, of Donizetti’s striving to break free of strict allegiance to pre-established bel canto procedures again provided better framework. Donizetti’s final revision of this scene revealingly made it, dramatically, potentially very riveting. Likewise, opening chorus to final scene – listen to Gavezzeni set (with Callas) for how intensely moving this can be – thanks both to stiff podium and tremulous Met women, came off flat-line shallow sounding instead. Otherwise, as tragedy inexorably deepens, Armiliato adopted a more yielding stance, better responsive to situation at hand for much of what remained.

With Netrebko, one can not entirely fail to find her musically and dramatically gifted, almost sufficing some self-critical acumen as well, but it seems a nagging complacency can often take over – after reaching a certain point with what she accomplishes – ultimately in regard to her vocal health as well. And this was a little more conspicuously her show than her earlier Vienna run.

Discouraging toward attending this ‘live’ was auditioning ‘Non v’ha sguardo’ from Met opening night alongside Renata Scotto’s (from early 1970’s Philadelphia broadcast). For serious vocal production issues addressed earlier, they were practically identically alike. Never mind Netrebko speaking of finding her own way once having checked out Callas and Leyla Gencer No doubt much got invested here – effortful too – with inflexible vocal presence always lurking beneath the surface matched with stiff podium - austere visuals over the long haul affecting stage demeanor as well. One had to have been impressed by what Netrebo accomplished, but through all this somehow seldom moved.

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