The Met’s opening Onegin

Last night’s Met opening gala premiere of Yevgeny Onegin rendered the opera being performed more or less incidental in the face of multiple protests and technical snafus. It was four and a half hours long and only a little over half of that was taken up by music.

Nonetheless, let’s try to start with that opera. It’s hard. Because despite some distinguished singing, it’s difficult to make something so routine the centerpiece of this unusually eventful evening.

Eugene Onegin. Met opening night gala, 9/23/2014. Production by Deborah Warner, directed by Fiona Shaw. Conducted by Valery Gergiev with Anna Netrebko (Tatiana), Mariusz Kwiecien (Onegin), Oksana Volkova (Olga), Piotr Beczala (Lensky), Elena Zaremba (Madame Larina), Larissa Diadkova (Filippyevna), John Graham-Hall (Triquet), Richard Bernstein (Zaretski), Alexei Tanovitski (Gremin)

Deborah Warner’s traditional, realistic production looks like an aspirational BBC miniseries, and outside the scenic happy peasants it’s about equally Russian in its sensibility. It’s realistic and gratuitously detailed. In Act 1, set in a farm workshop kind of place (sets designed by Tom Pye), a bevy of servants bustles around endlessly, which keeps some motion onstage even as the main characters often stand still. The same set–which has windows looking out over a field and a lot of clutter inside–is the setting of Tatiana’s epistolary adventures, as well as her subsequent rejection. The Act 2 ball takes place in a modest parlor-like setting, the duel in a wide open foggy field bisected by a dead tree (the shooting features very large guns for some reason), and the final act in a far grander, colonnaded ballroom. In the final scene, this room apparently is outside, because people are wearing coats and it starts snowing.

will be happy to see that Warner doesn’t seem to have any big original
ideas. The acting comes in and out of focus. (Maybe this is due to its often-absent director.) There is dancing, and there isn’t anything big that you wouldn’t expect. The last scene is by far the most compellingly
directed part of the production, though that might be because it’s one of the
only places in the drama where both the leading characters express strong feelings at the same time. For once both singers seemed to be feeling
it and it was appropriately tense. When the text is less clear, the staging tends to do less, and when there is music without singing no one really does much at all. This is most
egregious in the first act, which is very generic. Onegin in
particular is a notoriously under drawn character, and neither Warner
nor Mariusz Kwiecien have done much to give him any substance. He is,
however, more flirtatious than usual with Tatiana, which seems to make her
infatuation a little more explicable but his rejection less.

Onegin in Amstersdam
Stefan Herheim/Mariss Jansons
 Onegin in Vienna
Falk Richter/Michael Güttler

Actually, there is one dramatic action that is added. Or rather two. After rejecting Tatiana, Onegin gives Tatiana a brief peck on the lips. She returns this in dramatic fashion at the very end of the opera, stopping the music for an awkwardly long makeout session. I didn’t like either addition, which struck me as running violently against the relatively faithful period atmosphere of the rest of the staging, not to mention creating an awkward caesura at the end of the score, a point when its momentum is all-important. There has been nothing to imply that Tatiana’s concern for her marriage and honor were anything less than genuine. It feels impossibly modern and Hollywood. Forbidden love! She shows him what he cannot have! Etc., etc., etc.

It’s a safe, unimaginative production that marks no improvement on the 1997 Robert Carsen production that it replaces. The Carsen had what I consider a respectably long run, but it’s a shame to replace it with something that is less interesting and overall less effective. Carsen also used traditional dress, but the stark setting of an empty box (with birch trees) allowed for the kind of large-scale images that registered in the giant theater. Warner’s eye is more cinematic and problematically intimate. What originality there is is small moments character work that is hardly visible in this large a space. It was best seen through my opera glasses (I was in Orchestra Standing; many seats are far more distant).

Musically, last night lacked the kind of polish one would expect from a premiere. Largely at fault was Valery Gergiev’s weirdly ponderous conducting, which stressed the singers out and often made the action drag. He has infinite experience with this piece, but much was sloppy, and he found none of the brilliant radiance that Mariss Jansons did the last time I heard this opera. The orchestra sounded good at points but out of sorts at others.

The leading roles are strongly cast, the supporting less so. Like every opening night, it was the Anna Netrebko Show. She is ideally cast as Tatiana, singing in her native language and finally find a role that often suits her ardor without straining her agility. But in the first two acts she seemed mostly concerned with appearing modest and disappearing, lest she release the diva before her time had come. This did not help create a character. It was in the Letter Scene and third act where she could show her capabilities, which include a lustrous, rich, tone and a startling immediacy and intensity of expression, as well as a variety of color she doesn’t always find in Italian or French. Sometimes she struggled with Gergiev’s slow tempos, but such vivid singing is always worth it.

Mariusz Kwiecien makes a handsome Onegin, though I didn’t see him doing much to solve the character’s essential vacuity. His singing was handsome too, with a pleasantly smooth, moderately-sized lyric baritone and short on his usual tendency to bellow. Only a soft high note at the end of the Act 1 arioso almost cracked. I’ve already heard Piotr Beczala as Lensky at the Met, and besides Netrebko he did the best singing of the night, sounding the best he has in a while. At his best he has a plangent and well-controlled tenor, and sang the aria with exemplary musicianship. He did not show great interest in acting.

The supporting roles were uneven. As Olga, Oksana Volkova mostly acted with her hips, her singing accurate but grainy and unglamorous of tone. Alexei Tanovitski was an unmemorable Gremin. Richard Bernstein was, as always, an outstanding Zaretski and should be singing leading roles. John Grahm-Hall was an inept Monsieur Triquet and sang with an awful wobble that some singers would pass off as a trill. The chorus sounded a bit spotty.

Now to the rest. The gala audience was more interested in chatting than operagoing, and the whole thing ended almost an hour late due to a late start and long intermissions. There is no place on this or any planet where the 2.5 hour opera Onegin needs to take 4.5 hours (I was standing, which made me very aware of this). One lighting pause after the Letter Scene was mistaken for an intermission by a large portion of the audience, who rushed out and then tried to get back in during the next scene. (Bad house management. I think the Met will have a headache dealing with these gala-goers.)

More importantly, to protest Russia’s laws against LGBT people there was a small picket line outside the theater, and a shouted protest inside before the National Anthem before the performance. The protestors were aiming for visibility and symbolism, and that’s a testament to the Met’s prominence. But I have to wonder what exactly they wanted out of the non-Russian Scrooge McDuck of arts organizations. Peter Gelb’s statement on this matter was asinine, but perhaps all one could expect from someone who is running a gala where many of the seats cost more than my first car. Targeting Netrebko individually seems particularly off-key. What could she safely do? Probably not much. (I am in agreement with La Cieca on this matter.) Moreover, why restrict yourself to symbolic protest and involve Netrebko and the Met when Valery Gergiev is conducting? He is a far more powerful figure and has done several things that could legitimately be cause for a more focused protest (see also: Georgia). Russia’s human rights abuses are not limited to those against LGBT people.

On a lighter note, it’s time for another episode of Program Notes Smackdown. I am, I hasten to add, neither a Pushkin nor a Chaikovsky expert, but I have a few complaints against Gavin Plumley’s notes.

“Its [the novel’s] success was no doubt due to the immediacy of Pushkin’s tale and his ability to draw the reader in to the emotional trials and tribulations of its characters.”

The verse novel is actually famous for its irony and the sardonic tone of its narrator. That’s one of the biggest differences between it and the opera.

“[Chaikovsky] relies on the universal power of recollection, triggered by pithy but persuasive musical ideas…”

The phrase “universal power” makes me nervous. More pointedly, Chaikovsky’s score evokes a wide variety of musical genres and melodic forms that Russian audiences would have recognized and associated with certain contexts (even including a quotation in the opening quartet). That’s far from universal, and it’s one major reason why this opera is part of the Russian national canon.

continues through the fall. The November performances feature a second cast with fantastic Onegin Peter Mattei, and iffy Marina Poplovskaya (Tatiana) and Rolando Villazon (Lensky). The HD is on October 5.

Photos copyright Ken Howard.

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The Met’s new Mehlisir d’amore

Are you DELIGHTED yet?

For a repertory performance, this Elisir d’amore would not have been all bad. The singing is decent and the story happens, though the beats fall haphazardly. But this was a new production for the Met’s opening night, which requires confronting the reality that a lot of people thought that making this thing from scratch was a good idea, and put a lot of time, craft, and money into it.

The ideal seems to have been to create something as mainstream and inoffensive as possible. In practice, this means the production has all the appeal and originality of a suburban shopping mall (whose multiplex probably plays The Met Live in HD). There’s a ritual aspect to opera, particularly live performance. There are certain thrills we want to experience, together, over and over. But new productions are for, you know, new stuff, and to come up with something as cookie cutter as this you have to be really actively opposed to creativity.

In other news, I love you, Trebs, but stop kidding yourself.

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore. Metropolitan Opera opening night, 9/24/2012. New production (premiere) directed by Bartlett Sher, sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lights by Jennifer Tipton. Conducted by Maurizio Benini with Anna Netrebko (Adina), Matthew Polenzani (Nemorino), Mariusz Kwiecien (Belcore), Ambrogio Maestri (Dulcamara), Anne-Carolyn Bird (Giannetta)

L’elisir is a human comedy that has to find a way to balance sincere emotion with slapstick, and deal with the fact that its hero Nemorino is, well, not the sharpest tool in the shed. (I think this is why most productions keep the setting rural and full of peasants. Those country people are dumb!) This production preserves the traditional rustic Italian setting, though the set is blown up to almost Zeffirellian proportions. The stage is framed in a false proscenium that fulfills its promise to portray only a storybook—these are faultlessly clean and well-dressed peasants, with a generous touch of opera’s favorite time period, Slutty 18th and 19th Century (it’s like the 18th or 19th century, only with more cleavage). There seem to be both farm folks and town folks, but I couldn’t figure out why. Anna Netrebko’s Adina does wear a top hat, and an outfit with a red skirt and belt that led some people in front of me to conclude that she was “a gypsy” (sic).

Many of the sets are flat cutouts. The maze of buildings, wheat and many unidentified objects reads very badly from the bird’s eye view of the Family Circle, I can’t really tell you much more about what it looks like. (To paraphrase Mitt Romney, those trees are not the right height). But while the sets speak of Italy, the lighting plot is of Sweden in December. Gratuitous follow spots pop on and off randomly, and it always looks like sunset. I tried to figure out how much time was passing between scenes and what time of the day it was supposed to be, and I had to give up.

 Sher portrays Adina and Nemorino on close terms from the start, getting physically intimate with each other even before the elixir is involved. But it’s not consistent, and Sher prefers everyone to constantly run around and fall over a lot rather than anything genuinely emotional or constructing a convincing through-line. And since they started getting in each other’s faces, unless you have some detail there’s nowhere you can really go. (I was in the Family Circle, FWIW.) But for all the broadness there is little that is funny here. And if you’re going to make this a psychological drama you have come up with characterizations a little more distinctive than these. Belcore is not as over-the-top as usual but nor is he anything more than a guy who comes on and sings an aria. I guess you can choose to pass up comedy if you like, but to have such wonderful opportunities as Dulcamara’s aria, Nemorino opening the elixir bottle, and the gondola girl song pass with hardly a laugh makes the whole thing even more confusing and bland.

This may have been partially due to a certain lack of star wattage. Anna Netrebko is a treasure but has a hard time wrapping her increasingly big, dark voice around this light part. While the results were sometimes interesting, and the sound is pure gorgeous, her pitch went flat sometimes and this voice in this role is, despite her aggressively flirty acting, matronly. As for that top hat, I don’t know. It makes no sense, though it isn’t alone in that regard. The stage desperately needed lighting up, and she wasn’t quite enough to do it.

Based on Matthew Polenzani’s sound, you’d think he should be more famous than he is. But considering the whole performance his place seems, as cruel as this might sound, about right. He has lovely technique and smooth liquid tone, sounds Italianate enough, is musically tasteful, and can sing piano like nobody’s business. But he is completely, utterly lacking in charisma. (That only one of these photos features him is not my fault but rather the Met website’s. Maybe that means something.) Nemorino might not be a glamorous guy but he’s the hero and you have to be rooting for him. Polenzani is just this dude singing, and his dramatic ritardando at the end of “Una furtiva” was immaculate and accomplished yet empty.

Mariusz Kwiecien sang Belcore cleanly but sometimes has a bit of strain in his voice in the higher ranges. Ambrogio Maestri is a big man with a big voice and is very Italian and would thus seem ideal for Dulcamara, but despite booming it out just fine (with an excellent upper register) never seemed to have the personality to match his other attributes. Anne-Carolyn Bird’s Giannetta chorus scene was beautifully done, featuring several of the most elegantly shaped phrases of the night.

Maurizio Benini kept to the tradition that Elisir d’amore should only be conducted very, very badly (see my records on this—yeah, I like this opera and go see it a lot, we go back, Elisir and I, and for the record my production was cuter than this one and I still have the bottle of elixir sitting on my bookshelf). Coordination was faulty in the chorus preceding Dulcamara’s entrance, the tricky concertante that closes Act 1, and several other spots. In general Benini seemed content to let the singers do their thing and not make anything too exciting or dramatic.

Alas, this seems to have been everyone’s mission. Doing anything that hadn’t been done before doesn’t seem to have been on anyone’s mind. It’s less twee than most of Sher’s other work for the Met, but it’s slapdash, superficial, and hella boring. I think I’d actually prefer to see Otto Schenk’s Vienna production, which isn’t any more innovative but at least doesn’t bury its characters in sets and shadows. If opening night sets the tone for the rest of the year it’s going to be a long, long season.

On the way home I tried to think what would make me want to see this thing again and I came up with the following casts:
Marina Poplovskaya and Lance Ryan
Simone Kermes and Johan Botha
Nadja Michael and the sax/flute player from the subway
You might gather I think this production needs an infusion of weird energy. Putting together a certifiably insane HIP diva and an immobile Heldentenor might not be kind to Donizetti but it would sure be something different. Any further ideas?

Should you wish, this production is on for the next while and on HD later.
Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

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Jonas Kaufmann crashes Anna Netrebko’s Bohemian party in Salzburg

I went to a
Very Special Performance of La Bohème
at the Salzburg Festival and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:

When Salzburg Festival intendant Alexander Pereira stepped onto the stage of the Großes Festspielhaus last night to announce that one of the cast members of La bohème was sick and unable to sing, he faced a chorus of hisses from the audience… Piotr Beczala had decided a mere ten minutes earlier that his vocal cords would not be up to singing Rodolfo that night. We would have to wait forty minutes for a replacement. Further hisses. Fortunately Pereira had an ace up his sleeve: the replacement would be another star, Jonas Kaufmann.

You can read the rest here. This review
has everything: Anna Netrebko. Special surprise Rodolfo Jonas Kaufmann. Me
saying nice things about the Wiener Philharmoniker. You’re not going to believe

A few more thoughts and photos below.

If you go to
as many performances as I do eventually you’ll see something crazy like this. As
I said in July when I wrote about a very different Bohème, this opera has never been one of my particular favorites.
That performance didn’t change my mind. But this one may have. The set design isn’t
great and doesn’t do much for the drama, but the Personenregie is remarkably nuanced. The characters were less idealized than usual, but for me that made them much more sympathetic, because they seemed real. As for the big cast change,
the singer/actor split is never a good thing but this staging is never static
and there would have been no way in hell to work anyone new into it on short
notice without severe damage. And I’m glad that they didn’t do that.

The scene at
this performance was incredibly glitzy. It’s a Salzburg irony: the festival
glories in the red carpets and paparazzi, yet many of the productions that draw
this crowd (before we even consider the smaller or more niche events) are far from
a Zeffirellian celebration of opulence for its own sake. (Think of the Decker Traviata. Or Frau ohne Schatten.) This was a case in point: the audience looked
far more glamorous than anyone onstage, except maybe Musetta.* (Including, however, Kaufmann, who really did
look like they had pulled him off the street, though not the same street these
Bohemians were occupying.)

And this
ridiculously last-minute slapped together substitution added a further human
touch and charm to something almost too fancy to bear.  There was widespread hissing when Pereira
announced the delay, because these are people who don’t like to wait, and then not
long after we’re all happily watching Jonas Kaufmann emerge stage left with his
shirt untucked, look slightly confused, disappear again, and return dragging a
very large chair. Getting a big-name replacement is a Salzburg sort of luxury, and the
singing was certainly of that class, but I loved how the trappings were pure
(Though if
Beczala was feeling ill all day, as Pereira said, shouldn’t they have started
scouting for a replacement Rodolfo a little earlier? Or at least given Kaufmann
a chance to be warned that with Gatti “Che gelida manina” was going to be a special preview of the Parsifal they’re doing together at the Met next year? Seriously, doing
this without rehearsal must have required nerves of steel in the first place
but when one of the weirdest conductors in the business is involved it’s even
worse. On an absolute scale there were coordination issues but under the circumstances I’m going to say it was damn good.)
This was far
from the Bohème that I expected but
it was certainly a Bohème to
remember. That’s all for me in Europe this summer, but this was an excellent finale.
*Except for
me. It had been raining buckets and while it everyone else had seemingly arrived
by helicopter, their outfits perfectly intact (not really, but as press
I got a nice seat), I had walked from the Neustadt and despite having an
umbrella resembled a drowned rat.

Curtain call:

Spot the non-Bohemian

Production photos, copyright Silvia Lelli

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Manon at the Met marche sur quelques chemins

The Met’s new Anna Netrebko vehicle production of Manon stands out in the desert of the Met as a rare beacon of competence. Laurent Pelly’s production isn’t great–the tone is uneven and it generally fails to cohere–but most of it is smoothly executed and there’s some interesting stuff in there. Above all, it has Anna Netrebko as Manon, and her epic soprano that overwhelms everything around her.

Massenet, Manon. Metropolitan Opera, 3/31/12. New production by Laurent Pelly with sets by Chantal Thomas and costumes by Pelly, lights by Joël Adam. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Anna Netrebko (Manon), Piotr Beczala (Des Grieux), Paulo Szot (Lescaut), David Pittsinger (Count des Grieux), Christophe Mortagne (Guillot).

First, if you can take a second and vote for me in the second round of the Arts Blogger Challenge, I would appreciate it. If I were to win I would be able to bring you more writing funded by my oodles of prize money.

Pelly sets the opera in the Belle Époque, around the time of its composition. The central idea is compelling: male voyeurism, and Manon alternately controlling and being controlled by the male society she fascinates. Netrebko’s Manon might start off young, but she’s both hot to trot and fully self-conscious from the beginning. On every step of her journey from country girl to living-in-sin Bohemian to kept woman, she knows what she wants and how she’s going to get it–it’s just the society that enjoys her so much has to condemn her in the end to satisfy their nineteenth-century morality. For Netrebko, this is a great interpretation, fitting her modern, forthright sexuality as well as her lustrous, big voice. Playing Manon as a wispy innocent would be both dramatically and vocally futile for her.

The production’s execution of this concept, though, leaves something to be desired. Chantal Thomas’s plain, cardboard-y sets, with some off-kilter angles and exaggerated perspective, look unfinished and incongruously small in the vast space of the Met’s stage. (This production was first seen in the much smaller Royal Opera House in London.) There’s an obsession with multiple levels and ramps, and everything is white and looks kind of the same until we reach the casino. The costumes are more elaborate though the color palette is limited.

Pelly doesn’t seem to have entirely decided about where he wants to take the piece, mixing cute jokes with some pretty heavy duty stuff and thus undermining both. While his attention to personal interaction is admirable, the characterization is not entirely consistent, and realism and surrealism mix uneasily. Tiny houses and freeze frames in the chorus recall Pelly’s cutesy Fille du régiment, but it’s hard to think that the crowds of men spying on Manon at every turn are a joke.

In the Saint-Sulpice scene, Des Grieux’s bed appears to be located in the nave of the church, which makes sense if you think about it as abstract, but the sets so far had been more literal about their sense of place. And when Manon rips off his cassock, it can’t help but be over-the-top silly. Her action–seducing a priest-in-training after his sermon–is itself ridiculously melodramatic, but the ironic tone sits awkwardly with the sweet staging of their romance in the first half of the opera.

When Pelly really goes for the abuse heaped on fallen women, I’m still not sure if I can take him seriously. A ballet with intently-watching Jockey Club men seems like a knock-off of the Giselle parody in David McVicar’s Faust (actually, in some ways this whole production is a bargain basement version of that one). There’s an air of half-assedness around it. It’s a shame, because it could have worked had Pelly taken a few more chances.

But even if it rarely lifts off, there’s a lot to offer here, first and foremost Netrebko. Most people would say she’s well past the Massenet-Manon fach and should be singing Puccini’s more full-throated Manon instead, but she brings a lot to Massenet as well. Namely, she fills (and occasionally crashes through) the phrases with such a gorgeous, thick, sexy sound that they seem to glow, at least some of the time. She’s most at home in the legato of the entrance aria and the table farewell, while the ornate faux-eighteenth century writing and Ds in the Cours la Reine scene aren’t easy for her (the first D worked pretty well but the second not as much). Overall it’s a beautifully full-blooded performance, with vitality and passion to spare.

Piotr Beczala tends to indicate more than inhabit his roles, but his Des Grieux was the most convincing acting I’ve seen from him, with straightforward naturalism that generally eludes him. Unfortunately all was not well vocally for his Italianate lyric tenor. He’s a very musical singer and some phrases were gorgeous, but he struggled with intonation the entire evening, often singing slightly sharp. Louder phrases, including much of “Ah! fuyez..” were pushed and lacked resonance.

The supporting roles were fine, with Paulo Szot making the most of his likeability as Lescaut. His voice is on the small side but he sounds good enough in this role. Christophe Mortagne was funny as Guillot, though I’m not sure if funny was quite what was required all the time. David Pittsinger is always a welcome presence at the Met and was an excellent Count (his entrance in the Hôtel de Transylvanie scene makes you remember how very much like Traviata large portions of this opera are).

Fabio Luisi’s conducting was intelligent and well-coordinated and on the more deliberate side of things. I wish it had been flashier. Actually, that’s what I would have liked of the whole production.

If you haven’t read La Cieca’s piece on Netrebko’s characterization of Manon, I recommend you do. I have one thing I’d add, though. While there is no single Manon, we can say with some confidence what the 19th-century Manon would have been, and we can say what audiences today expect as well. Based on the reaction, the latter is something much daintier than Netrebko. I think that for rhetorical purposes La Cieca understates the difficulty of contravening this tradition. The score is all we have, but people are attached to their usual ways of thinking about a piece, and you need to be stronger and more consistent than Pelly is here to convince them otherwise.

Still, the production is worth seeing, if somewhat disappointing.

Manon plays through April and she will suffer her inevitable HD broadcast on April 7.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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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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Anna Netrebko sings Anna Bolena, keeps her head

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.

By the way, I do not mean to set up a false dichotomy between bel canto with perfect technique and bel canto with passion. But that’s sort of how it turned out at this performance.

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.

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