Anna Bolena at the Met: the dress rehearsal report

This year’s opening night at the Metropolitan Opera will be a new production of Anna Bolena starring Anna Netrebko. I saw the open dress rehearsal today. Like when I saw her sing the role for the first time in Vienna in April, it’s all her show, and it’s a real star turn. But unlike in Vienna, the rest of the cast is solid and David McVicar’s production is a class act. I’m not going to be too critical or specific regarding the singing in a dress rehearsal, but here’s an idea of what we’re getting.

Donizetti, Anna Bolena. Metropolitan Opera final dress rehearsal, 9/22/2011. New production by David McVicar, conducted by Marco Armiliato with Anna Netrebko (Anna Bolena), Ekaterina Gubanova (Jane Seymour), Stephen Costello (Percy), Ildar Abdrazakov (Henry VIII), Tamara Mumford (Smeaton).

This is the first time Anna Bolena is being performed at the Met. The story is fairly familiar to English speakers and/or fans of The Tudors: bass Henry VIII is tiring of his soprano queen Anne Boleyn (Wife #2) and is eying her lady-in-waiting mezzo Jane Seymour. Through a combination of bad luck and a stupid tenor ex-boyfriend named Percy, Anne is convicted of adultery and sent to the chopping block, so Jane can become Wife #3.

Back in April I already liked Anna Netrebko’s Anna Bolena quite a bit. Since then she has only grown, keeping the intense sincerity and glamor but adding a great deal more dramatic specificity and complexity. Her Anne Boleyn is a character of real strength, grandeur, and vulnerability at the same time, conflicted between her husband and ex, treacherous lady-in-waiting, and so on. Her voice is as luscious as always, and easily fills the Met without pushing; in this morning rehearsal she took a while to warm up, but improved steadily to a magnificent final scene. In a word, a fierce portrayal. I can’t say I like this opera too much, really, but if you like singing I think it’s worth seeing just for her performance.

The supporting cast is on the whole somewhat preferable to that of Vienna, with Ildar Abdrazakov’s imposing, solidly sung Henry VIII as the standout. He also gets the production’s best costume, in which he looks like that painting of Henry VIII you are seeing in your head (he must be wearing a lot of fabric, he’s not that wide a guy). Indeed, Netrebko showed considerably more chemistry with him than she did with her supposed beloved, Percy, given a rather awkward portrayal by Stephen Costello. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Costello (I first saw him way back in his AVA days, though I never did write the detailed review I promised here) and this time the tone color of his compact tenor reminded me of a more lyric Juan Diego Flórez. Ekaterina Gubanova was a very, very Slavic Giovanna (Jane Seymour), but one with force to spare and some nice musicality as well. Actually, the voices fell into two distinctly national categories: the dark, somewhat thick Slavic ones of Netrebko, Abdrazakov, and Gubanova, and the more clear-toned Americans Costello and Tamara Mumford as Smeaton, whose gorgeous, graceful singing here maybe will finally get her the breakthrough she deserves.

The chorus continues to improve and the orchestra sounded fine. Marco Armiliato was the reliable Kapellmeister he always is. You’re probably not going to go out thinking “wow, that’s some conducting,” but he gets the job done smoothly.

If it hadn’t been for a bloody Smeaton stumbling around in Act 2 and a threatening executioner at the very end, I may never have guessed that the production was by David McVicar. There are almost none of the familiar McVicar clichés: no odd dancing, no naked guys (despite the Tower of London prisoners’ uniform of buttonless shirts and Elizabethan Bermuda shorts), no mini theater. It is about as traditional as it gets. Robert Jones’s sets are minimal, a few pale stone walls, an elegant paned window, and a vaulted ceiling. Jenny Tiramani’s costumes are elaborate and scrupulously period with many pearls and square necklines except for their predominately black and white Pilgrim chic color palette (with some more color towards the end, according to no logic that I could see). Paule Constable’s lighting is painterly and sometimes quite dark.

It’s a well-crafted production; McVicar is a master of directing singers in a way that focuses each dramatic beat to clearly tell the story. We always know what is happening. The movement is musically sensitive, the many choruses are handled with aplomb, and when standing still downstage belting it out is what’s required, that’s what we get. It’s unusually well paced and seemed hours shorter than the limp Vienna production. Overall it’s the best traditional production I’ve seen at the Met since, well, McVicar’s Trovatore (when it was new). But he’s capable of much more perceptive, interesting and creative work than this, and I wish we had gotten some of that instead; I expected more out of him than what we get here. It’s true that it’s not a great libretto and doesn’t present too many opportunities, but still.

One staging cliché McVicar does fall into too often is the old bel canto turn-around. “I was just leaving, but this new, faster accompanimental figure started up and I thought I would dramatically spin around and sing a bit more, OK?” He uses it a lot. It’s effective, but on the twentieth time, not as much.

I can’t imagine “the olds” who hold their conservative sway at the Met finding anything to object to here, there is even use of the stage elevator (which broke down and occasioned a 15-minute delay today) and some Irish wolfhounds led around in the hunting scene. There are a few touches that seem carried over from the Vienna production: the child Elizabeth I again makes a cameo appearance (this time in the first scene rather than the last), and once more Anna fussily pulls her hair up at the very end of the opera to better expose her neck. But it’s that neck that’s the important thing here, or rather the voice that comes out of it. Much of this show is more highly professional than exciting, but Anna is magic.

Anna Bolena opens on September 26 and will be broadcast in HD on October 15. I will add some more photos when I find them.

Photo © Brigitte Lacombe/Met Opera

Video: Anna Netrebko sings “Coppia iniqua” in Vienna in April (NOT the Met’s production!)

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  1. "The supporting cast is on the whole somewhat preferable to that of Vienna"… are you kidding??? I like Ekaterina Gubanova but I can't imagine a better Jane Seymour thaan Elina Garanca, I like Ildar Abdrazakov, but Ildebrando D'Arcangelo is something else… can't compare Stephen Costello with Francesco Melli and Elisabeth Kulman was outstanding as Smeton in Wien…

    In any case I am sure it was a superb performance and I am looking forward to hearing the first broadcasta and to watch the live transmission on 15. Oct.

  2. Carlos, I didn't like D'Arcangelo that much and thought Abdrazakov was much more memorable. I know almost everyone loved Garanca's Giovanna, but I found her totally boring and I liked Gubanova. She's not as glam but she really goes for it. Think I prefer Meli too, actually, though Costello is a lot more consistent.

  3. "turnaround"… we in the profession call it a "false exit". It is used by directors when they are frustrated and irritated at the music. And it is a kind of disrespect.

  4. She seems mysteriously out of breath between phrases but probably due to excitment ,as she pulls through quite well more with the colour and less with the weight of the voice and i think this is the problem. Her voice is too smooth and beautiful and not too resistant to vocal damage.This is a vocal chord buster ideally sung by a manic depressive soprano with chords of teflon. Every performance steals months and years of vocal time..She did very well indeed and now how s about some R Strauss?