The Metropolitan Opera opened its High Definition Movie series this week with Donizetti's Anna Bolena—immediately pushing vocal superstar Anna Netrebko to “Diva Assoluta” status.
Her sumptuous tone pours out of that gorgeous mouth—minus any distortion—with seemingly no effort at all. And the lady is a good actress to boot!
No wonder Met General Manager Peter Gelb had her image plastered on the sides of buses all over the Metropolitan area and used her face to decorate the season’s calendar and every other current Met publication I have seen.
What’s more, in presenting the first-ever Anna Bolena at the Met, Gelb surrounds the lead with an outstanding cast. And the high definition movie transmissions that are now shown in almost every country around the world give the Met a chance to showcase the power of its singers.
Russian bass Ilar Abdrazakov was chosen as the fiery, menacing Henry VIII, who schemes effectively to rid himself of Anne Boleyn for only giving him a female heir. (But then we all know the gory story if only from the marvelous TV exposures of the Tudors via the BBC and countless plays and movies like, ”Anne of a Thousand Days.”)
Incidentally, the famed Scottish director David McVicar came up with an idea that really works. He introduces a little red-headed girl, destined to become Elizabeth I, as a foil to soften the impression of the ambitious Anne, by showing her as a loving mother.
The charming child, Clare Cashman is an Eastchester second grader—one of our own—who thrives in her Met debut.
Philadelphia’s tenor Stephen Costello is the ill-fated Percy; Moscow’s mezzo-soprano, Ekaterina Gubanova, the conflicted lady-in-waiting, Anne Seymour. Both gave moving and vocally graceful renditions of their parts.
Tamara Mumford, the mezzo-soprano who hales from Utah, is built marvelously for trouser roles. She gave an all-around persuasive performance of the smitten, but doomed, page Mark Smeaton.
Besides the all-star cast the Met also did not stint on the costumes. All are correct for the period. British costume designer Jenny Tiramani showed off some of them during a delightfully informative intermission feature, something only available to HD movie audiences. She explained that each sumptuous outfit had the cumbersome undergarment lacings appropriate for 1536.
I liked the fairly barren sets by London’s Robert Jones. The absolute realism of the costumes in contrast, allows our imaginations to fill in whatever detail we deem appropriate. A red poster bed manages to speak proverbial volumes.
Marco Armiliato, the Italian guest conductor gave a spirited reading to the whole, and extracted the famous great tone from the ever-excellent Met orchestra.
Anna Bolena premiered in Milan in 1830. Surprisingly, it was not at La Scala but as a commission from the competing Teatro Carcano. With a skillful libretto by Felice Romani, it was the first real success for Gaetano Donizetti.
The composer who is known to have created approximately 75 operas, plus orchestral, choral as well as chamber works, is barely remembered for more than the ever-popular Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucrezia Borgia, and the comic operas L’Elisir d’Amore, La Filled du Regiment and Don Pasquale.
Anna Bolena has never really caught on although it was a vehicle for Sills, Callas and Sutherland. Geld in interviews has discussed plans for producing the two other Tudor opera queens, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux in the future.
The Met recently has been offering us a huge tableau of bel canto operas possibly precisely because of the magnificent bel canto singers currently available around the world. There is ample precedence for this. Had it not been for the huge talent of Ezio Pinza, there might not have been a revival of Mozart operas at the Met. Flagstadt, Melchior and Traubel rekindled a somewhat waning interest in Wagner at one time. Since so many of the current bel canto artists are still quite young, we might find ourselves exposed to undiscovered Donizetti operas yet. And they are legion!
It is often quoted that the prolific composer was ”born in a windowless cellar room” to a poor family in Bergamo Italy in 1797. Some say his father was a government clerk; others have him as the local pawn broker. But all agree that had it not been for Bergamo’s German Kappellmeister, Johann Simon Mayr, young Gaetano’s talent might never have come to light. Having taught the boy all he knew, Mayr sent him on to Bologna at the age of nine.
There, under renowned Padre Mattei, the budding composer was fully trained and became incredibly productive. After 36 operas, with only tepid success, he finally gained recognition with Anna Bolena in 1830. He was now competing with contemporaries like Bellini and Rossini. In 1832 came “L’Elisir d’Amore” with one of the greatest tenor arias extant. Who has not thrilled to “Una furtiva lagrima” performed by Pavarotti or Domingo?
It is said that Caruso started it all with a Victor recording in 1904. Donizetti traveled extensively throughout the operatic capitals of Europe, including Paris, where he composed works such as La Fille du Regiment, to libretti in French.
His greatest success remains “Lucia,” which premiered in 1835. He married; fathered three sons, none of whom survived, and lost his wife to Cholera. By 1843 he showed symptoms of syphilis and mental disease. He died back in Bergamo in 1848. Many opera buffs make it a point to visit his tomb in Bergamo’s Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, right near his early mentor Mayr.
Here are some comments from your neighbors who attended Anna Bolena:
Judy Guttman of Larchmont “adored it.” She loved the music, the relationships and decided: ”It had it all.” Comparing attending at the Met itself to the HD’s, she welcomes “being right there, instead of feeling very far away if seated anywhere upstairs. Peter Gelb is brilliant,” she exclaimed.
Guttman's husband Stephan thought the performances were fantastic; he praised the sets and said the darkness worked extremely well with the plot. His only criticism was the opera’s length. “ I would have been happier had it been a half hour shorter.” (Several others made the same comment.)
Bruno Zaffilo of New Rochelle thought Netrebko was sensational. He praised her “phenomenal energy and effort, especially in the last scene.” An experienced opera-goer he gave me a learned analysis of all the singers, but I was especially touched by a story he told: Zaffilo took his family to City Opera often – since the Met’s prices reduced attending it to birthday celebrations and such.
He was delighted when, years ago, the 6th Grade which his daughter was attending, was permitted to go to a dress rehearsal of “L’Elisir,” at the Met. (They were told Pavarotti was not going to rehearse.) An adult had to go with every child, so Mr. Zaffilo went along. To everyone’s delight Pavarotti did sing the lead.
“It was one of the greatest operatic experiences I ever had,” Zaffilo said.
Did you see the opening HD performance of 'Anna Bolena?' Would you recommend it? What do you think of the Opera in HD Experience? Tell us in the comments!