06 April 2011

Anna Baloney

Oh, it makes me so mad!
Netrebko as Bolena

Last night, viewers of Arte TV in France and Germany were treated to a live telecast from Vienna’s Staatsoper: Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn), the best-known of his Tudor Trilogy that also includes Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart) and Roberto Devereux (about Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex).* Vienna’s production, by Eric Génovèse, has created a lot of buzz in Opera World, largely because of its stars, soprano Anna Netrebko (as Anna) and mezzo Elina Garanca (as Jane Seymour, here called Giovanna). Both ladies will kick off the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011–12 season in these roles, but in a different production, this one by David McVicar.

Which is all to the good. Too much of what Vienna gave us was, in my father’s immortal words, Anna Baloney.

Génovèse’s more-or-less traditional staging is dull (and mono- chromatic!) whenever it’s not incompetent, and while there’s something to be said for standing back and letting your singers fly, that approach didn’t work here. Garanca is a perfectly good actress, but she gave absolutely no indication of grasping Giovanna’s character; moreover, I’m betting that her restrained physicality, which worked on camera, looked merely static to those in the house. And as Henry VIII (Enrico), bass-baritone Ildebrando d’Arcangelo just stood around and scowled. Only Netrebko seemed much inspired by the dramatic material — and really, she didn’t catch fire until the end of the opera.

Since Anna Bolena is one of those operas in which the real appeal is the mad scene at the end, and many in the audience are just biding their time until we get to the juicy stuff, a stage director can’t afford to be so complacent. Look at what Génovèse did in the hunt scene: almost nothing. And yet it’s a wonderfully dramatic sequence, because Henry isn’t just stalking venison, he’s setting a trap for his wife.

Angry scene, as opposed to mad scene

All smiles and regal magnanimity, Henry has invited her ex-lover, Percy, back from exile — while fully believing that they’ll succumb to temptation, giving him the excuse he seeks to get rid of Anne and to wed Jane. In an aside, he instructs Lord Hervey to keep the lovers under surveillance.

But instead of any of those emotional nuances, last night we got more suspicious scowling from d’Arcangelo. Meanwhile, Francesco Meli (Percy) flailed about and Netrebko struggled visibly to locate and to maintain the dramatic moment.

Staging by God: Garanca as Giovanna
The most effective part of Vienna’s production may have been that both leading ladies are so gorgeous. You never think, “What did Henry see in her?”

Inevitably, I was reminded of my first Anna Bolena, at Dallas Civic Opera in 1977 (I think). In those days, I couldn’t get to the opera by myself, and had to rely on my parents to drive me to Fair Park; likewise, I couldn’t find a date, and so either Mom or Dad had to sit with me for the performance. Dad usually drew the assignment, and that’s how I learned that he actually liked opera. (Somehow, the question had never come up before.) But for Anna Bolena, Mom was my date.

While not an opera fan by any means, Mom has always been highly susceptible to music, and in the capable hands of Renata Scotto (as Anna), Tatiana Troyanos (as Giovanna), and the conductor Nicola Rescigno,** Mom got so caught up in the drama that she (apparently) forgot everything she knows about English history. While Henry persecuted poor Anne, Mom was practically hopping out of her seat. “How can he do that to her?” she fumed.

I couldn’t find any pictures of Scotto as Anna,
but this sums up the way I feel about her.

Génovèse didn’t see this kind of potential. During the intermission feature, Arte’s presenter made a disparaging remark about wringing drama out of bel canto, and Génovèse seemed to agree. He’s a member of the Comédie Française, but apparently some works are just too old-fashioned for him to get excited about. He had the sense not to attempt some Regiekonzept (such as updating or radically altering the setting, plot, theme, or tone), but I couldn’t help but think that his staging was dull because Génovèse himself was bored by the material.

This is simply inexcusable. Dramatists, directors, and actors have returned to Anne Boleyn’s story for centuries, finding it irresistible: sex, power, betrayal (which are the very elements that Donizetti and his librettist, Felice Romani, emphasize). Recent years have showered upon us a best-selling novelization and big-screen movie, as well as a wildly successful TV series, The Tudors. What’s not to be inspired?

No drama: Jonathan Rhys Myers and Natalie Dormer
as Henry and Anne in The Tudors

If Anna Bolena is so undramatic, why did singers such as Scotto, Troyanos, Beverly Sills, Maria Callas, and Netrebko herself want to perform it? We’re talking serious singing actresses here. And more than half a century after Callas pointed the way, why are we really in any doubt as to the theatrical possibilities of bel canto? Why did Génovèse take this assignment?

It really makes me wonder whether European impresarios bother talking to stage directors before they hire them. I’d like to propose an outline for such conversations. First question: have you ever seen an opera before? Second question: do you like opera? Third question: what do you think of this opera?

Callas as Anna, at La Scala

At least there was music, and the news from last night’s performance was mostly good — or at least, I didn’t feel the urge to change the channel. I’ve heard cleaner attack in coloratura than Netrebko gave us, but most of the role of Anna lies in a particularly lush section of her voice, and she really rose to the occasion as the opera went on. Garanca’s singing was, for the most part, as coolly detached as her acting, but that seemed to be a conscious choice, an attempt to portray Giovanna (legitimately) as in over her head and nearly petrified with fear: after all, her romantic flirtation is about to cost four people their lives. (No drama here?)

And while conductor Evelino Pidò didn’t delve too deeply into the score, and didn’t manage the rare feat of uniting the many moods of the mad scene, he evinced clear respect for the music (and for the singers) and proved especially successful in the more majestic passages. I once read the remark somewhere that Donizetti wrote the operas that Beethoven would have written if he’d kept at it: to me, that assessment makes perfect sense, but too seldom does one hear a conductor who agrees.

Whether overparted or indisposed, Meli alternated between lovely lyricism and panicky attacks on high notes; as an actor, he needed more help from Génovèse. D’Arcangelo captured Henry’s virility but not much else — it was hard to believe this was the singer I’ve admired on recordings. As the luckless page, Smeton, Elisabeth Kulman was an audience favorite, and along with Netrebko she came closest to managing an effective characterization — but the Met’s Tamara Mumford has a much more appealing instrument, giving New York audiences something to look forward to when she assumes the role in September.

Indeed, Vienna’s production had the unlikely effect of ratcheting up my enthusiasm to see the Met’s Anna Bolena: with greater experience in these roles, Netrebko and Garanca should be more comfortable and more expressive, come September, and a different staging and new colleagues may inspire them. Done properly (and there’s always a chance!), Anna Bolena is a terrific opera I’d like to see again.

It ain’t chopped liver. Or, for that matter, lunch meat.

*NOTE: Elizabeth reportedly makes an appearance in a fourth Donizetti opera, Il Castello di Kenilworth, after Walter Scott, but it’s considered impolite to mention this, and the work is seldom performed.

**Rescigno collaborated many times with Callas, and together they recorded an album of mad scenes, including that from Anna Bolena; it’s available here. Really, my introduction to this work couldn’t have been more auspicious, and I say it yet again: growing up as an opera-lover in Dallas, I was spoiled.


John Yohalem said...

Completely agree with you that Donizetti's operas can be thrilling dramas (even in concert! the best Bolena I ever heard was Stoyanova's, in a Carnegie Hall performance) -- I mean, he wouldn't have been hired to write 70 of them if they hadn't knocked people out?

-- also that stage directors can be very casual about this sort of thing and nowadays don't show much sign of understanding opera, which is a dramatic machine in which the music is the fundamental fuel and basic construction as well. You don't put sugar in your gas tank and expect the car to run; similarly, you don't cover important singing with irrelevant stage business and expect to have an exciting opera.

The Tudor Trilogy wasn't Donizetti's idea; it was some public relations flak at NYCO in the 1970s who came up with that. They really don't work as a unity. You know this, Guillaume. Now if you want to do a Tudor Series, you should add Mercadante's Il Reggente or Pacini's Maria Regina d'Inghilterra or Rossini's Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra or Saint-Saens's Henry VIII. I think someone did a Jane Grey, too.

All the "Tudor" operas omit any reference to the Protestant Reformation, probably because no in Italy in the 19th century gave a hoot (or had heard of it). You really need a bit of it to understand Anna's position. (And the positions of both Marias.) Even Verdi only gives it a brief nod in Don Carlos. I wonder if it's mentioned in the Tudors TV series? (Won't watch the thing, a. because I don't have cable, b. because historical TV and film, with rare exceptions, merely irritates me.)

I very much enjoyed the radio broadcast from Vienna, Anya of course, but also Garanca (who reminded me of Verrett), and am looking forward to the fall. And desperately envying you for having heard Troyanos as Seymour. (As I envy everyone who ever heard TT in any role I didn't hear.)

The other part of the opera that should always thrill is the end of Act I, "Ad Anna? Giudici?" which, like Stoyanova, Netrebko caught beautifully -- not just the fury, the insulted pride (as Callas et al. do), but on the third "Giudici!" a tremor crept into her voice as if she suddenly realized the trap was closing and she might be in real trouble. Very cool!

Mikebench said...

Billy, me boy, I don't think Callas ever sang anything from "Anna Bolena" in NYC. Are you thinking of the "Pirata" at Carnegie in 1959? She did sing the mad scene in Dallas, and we have that famous rehearsal. Maybe that is what you were thinking of?
Sorry to be such a pedant! I thought it was a really thoughtful post, in any event!

William V. Madison said...

Yikes, I think you're right! This is what happens when I try to write essays without my extensive library of Callas books at my fingertips -- I'll make the correction now.