It must not be easy to be Anna Netrebko. The hype surrounding her role debut as Anna Bolena last night was enormous, complete with absurdly priced scalped tickets and no fewer than three camera crews checking out the standing room line. Bless her heart, she delivered, and how! But the Wiener Staatsoper, the beneficiary of her fame and accomplice in all this hoopla, had the temerity to make her do all the work herself. Strong voices in the supporting roles failed to catch fire as Netrebko did, and Eric Génovèse’s life-suckingly dreary concert of a staging is something that any house in the world should be ashamed of.
Donizetti, Anna Bolena. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/2/2011. New production premiere by Eric Génovèse, sets by Jacques Gabel and Claire Sternberg, costumes by Luisa Spinatelli, lights by Bertrand Couderc. Conducted by Evelino Pidò with Anna Netrebko (Anna Bolena), Elina Garanca (Giovanni Seymour), Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Enrico VIII), Francesco Meli (Percy), Elisabeth Kulman (Smeton).
It’s hard to believe that this listless production is actually new. The static poses and stock gestures are straight out of your standard minimally rehearsed rep night. Actually, some of it is worse. What did they do for four weeks of rehearsal? And the drab visuals don’t help either. But let’s talk singing first, because that’s what this thing has going for it.
Anna Netrebko was in beautiful voice for her big debut, her ever-growing sound luscious, luminous, and possessed of a rare, unfakeable inner drama. Her efforts in bel canto repertoire are often described as sloppy and unrefined. I am perhaps a poor judge of this because I am not a particular fan of bel canto singing as an abstract musical art, and what is described as wonderful I often find studious and emotionally detached. None of that for Netrebko, who has remarkable presence and dramatic honesty, and tears into the music with abandon. She can go from the delicate, deep despair of the “Al dolce guardami” to sing “Coppia iniqua” in a way that makes you think that if she did decide to take vengeance, no one in the theater would be left alive. I love it. (Listen to her “Coppia iniqua” at the bottom of this post.)
But I think even diehard bel cantanistas would find rewards in her singing here, particularly her wide range of dynamics and gorgeously floated high notes. That plus dramatic intensity? Magic. The coloratura was mostly clean if not typewriter-mechanical and she showed a respectable if slightly unreliable trill and judicious use of chest voice. I can’t give you a rundown of acuti and cadenzas but she sang a good high D at the end of the first act and the cadenzas sounded like advanced level bel canto to me, not simplified. Sometimes her phrasing could be more immaculate, her sound a little more even, her coloratura clearer (her weakest point is descending scales). But slight imperfections are a small price to pay for her passion and commitment. I expect she will grow in the role with more experience and a stage director who is competent and can help her develop the character a little more, but she’s already very good, and a real star in an opera that requires one.
Namely, if you prefer Elina Garanca’s Giovanna Seymour to Netrebko’s Bolena, you would be in the technique department of the School of Bel Canto Appreciation. I found Garanca a well-sung bore. The notes were all there, sung very cleanly and evenly with apparent enthusiasm, but her voice is too metallic and chilly for this repertoire. She lacks roundness, and sounded more like a soprano than a mezzo. She appeared to be doing the right things, musically and theatrically, but it was always that, an appearance, while Netrebko seemed to be living it. For all her considerable talent–she has a wonderful voice and is in all technical respects an extremely accomplished singer–she lacked any sign of personality or individuality. In pure decibels and accuracy she outsang Netrebko in the duet, but theatrically the scene did not ignite because the emotion seemed to be only on one side.
Local favorite Elisabeth Kulman also does not have the most individual timbre, but in the pants role of Smeton her chocolatey tone and stylish phrasing impressed me more than Garanca. A former soprano, she also sometimes sounds sounds like a soprano with low notes, but the considerable range of the role offered her no difficulties from low to high. And she did much more with the text and got the straightforward intensity right.
On the male side of things: As Percy, Francesco Meli gave an uneven performance. There were moments of liquid Italianate beauty in his singing, but they were mixed with too many ones of strained and wobbly tone above the passaggio, though he improved as the opera went on. He has a good idea of the style and tried to match Netrebko for passion (though he is a stiff actor), but the voice is coming apart a bit, I fear. As Enrico VIII Ildebrando D’Arcangelo was well cast and sang in a perfectly fine and correct way, but failed to impress me one way or another, which is probably more due to my general bel canto indifference than him (note that the picture below shows Giacomo Prestia as Enrico VIII, who sang the dress rehearsal).
Evelino Pidò’s conducting was acceptable. The large-scale pacing was good, but sometimes it was inflexible and lacked nuance. The orchestra is notorious for not liking bel canto, but generally did a good job, with the exception of an overloud and sometimes ill-timed brass section. The trombones in the overture sounded like they were ushering us up to Valhalla, not through Donizetti. The chorus sounded very good, though their staging was awkward.
Eric Génovèse’s production is frankly a disgrace, so static and dramatically ineffective as to drag some excellent singing into its mud. Not even the most basic actions have been taken to stage the drama, to an extent that drained energy from the entire evening. The set is a rotating room of flat black walls with many doors or windows that open and close with vertically sliding panels that resemble garage doors. Occasionally a cyclorama of trees in the background is revealed. The costumes are abstract period with reduced ornamentation, volume, and structure. The women are dressed mostly in metallic taffeta, which often gets rumpled, making them look like they are all wrapped in tinfoil, or in the curtains of a hotel with more money than taste. Netrebko wears a different dress in almost every scene, though, so there’s that. It looks unfinished, particularly the set, and gives no atmosphere whatsoever.
No direction of the singers could be seen. Everyone stood stiffly in place, singing auf die Rampe, as they say here, the kind of dramatic downstage park and bark that should be reserved for a few dramatic solo moments or occasional big ensembles, but here was the only show in town. Occasionally they spin around dramatically, or wave their arms* and cover their faces with their hands (I didn’t always want to watch either). Netrebko visibly struggled against the static tableaux, swaying back and forth, leaning, and stretching her neck, attempting to do something, anything to establish a character. The lack of drama in the staging seemed to only magnify Garanca’s lack of engagement with the text, and she proclaimed to Enrico that she wanted love and renown as if she were asking him to pass the salt. The staging also failed to establish relationships between the characters, who often didn’t even look at each other at key moments. Oh, Anna does get to kiss Smeton, which could make sense, but here it really doesn’t. And there’s a cascading curtain effect that seems to be borrowed directly from last week’s Elektra, where it fit the music better.
The only bit of creativity was at the very end, where Anna gets to hug her kid (Elizabeth I) and finally beheads herself with a big red robe and one of those descending garage doors. It’s not exactly a masterstroke of staging but rather better than anything else found in this reactionary sung concert. Far be it from me to suggest that they would have been better off with borrowing from The Tudors miniseries (on the record as an Anna Netrebko favorite!), but, well, actually, no. I am going to suggest that. This production is dramatically moribund. Every bodice is left unripped. Something trashy and sleazy would have been infinitely preferable. Adultery and forbidden desire shouldn’t resemble an assembly of a mourning if shinier than average Puritans. Where’s the sexiness? You’ve got Anna Netrebko, for goodness’s sake. That’s a major opportunity, sexiness-wise.
Needless to say, I am now quite looking forward to David McVicar’s production at the Met in the fall, which will also star Netrebko and Garanca. Should I send him some Tudors DVDs? No, I really don’t think he needs them.
You can catch this Viennese production on ORF and Arte on Tuesday, April 5 at 7:00 p.m. Viennese time, and at various movie theaters. If you are in Vienna but can’t get a ticket, it will also be broadcast onto the big screen on the side of the Staatsoper at almost every performance.
As for the media circus, its most memorable exemplars were the visits to the standing room line of both current intendant Dominique Meyer (friendly and bringing coffee and pastry, a very nice gesture, and recorded by a film crew making a documentary about standing room) and later former intendant Ioan Holender, orangish in complexion and magisterial in bearing, uninterested in chat and accompanied by his own TV crew (and no pastry). The third film crew was from state network ORF and was surveying the relative popularity of Netrebko and Garanca among standing room waitees. (Most people seemed to reply “what a stupid question!” but I said I prefer Netrebko, actually. It’s the truth.)
If you want to stand, be aware that the capacity of the Parterre standing room section has been considerably reduced by the presence of several giant video cameras. So you will have to arrive even earlier than the usual ridiculous times required by Netrebko appearances if you want a good spot. The cameras are located on the left side, so the right line may be a better idea.
*This gesture seems to have a formula tied to the bel canto favorite IV-V-I harmonic progression: hand up (IV), out (V), and down (I, or in towards chest in case of a deceptive cadence).
Audio from last night, “Coppia iniqua,” iffy quality, sorry:
Photos copyright by Wiener Staatsoper/Pöhl? From Kurier, no credit given.