In 1957, when Maria Callas prepared to take on the role of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena,” she worked for months with a coach; with the conductor, Gianandrea Gavazzeni; and with the stage director, Luchino Visconti, to get it right.
This year, the star soprano Anna Netrebko has taken on the role herself, first in Vienna in April and now at the Metropolitan Opera, where she opened the season in the company’s first-ever production of the work on Monday night. Yet Netrebko’s “Anna Bolena” showed little of the care that made Callas’s so memorable. Monday’s performance was littered with missed intonations, smeared runs and a good deal of running about the stage with clasped hands, which evidently qualifies as operatic acting.
Netrebko has a beautiful voice, and though it sometimes lacked the stamina for this long evening, there was one moment on Monday when it really shone. In the aria in the final scene, when the character is lapsing in and out of madness, she sat back and let her signature limpid, round, melting tone pour out. The audience rewarded her with a deserved ovation, and the singer acknowledged their applause with a smile. Netrebko does not worry too much about staying in character.
For the rest — oh, for the kind of care that La Scala lavished on Donizetti’s lengthy opera about Henry VIII’s court. Instead, the Met seemed to go out of its way to support the allegation of its erstwhile former head, Rudolf Bing, that the opera was “an old bore.”
It would have helped to cast singers who were actually suited to the parts: The first act, in particular, bore the trappings of an apprentice cast. (Indeed, the best showing came from an alum of the Met’s young artist program, the dark-toned mezzo Tamara Mumford, in the pants role of the page Smeaton.)
The tenor Stephen Costello, almost 30, who sang the part of Percy (the man Anna threw over to marry the king), showed a supple, lyric tenor that grew increasingly confident in melodic lines; unfortunately, it did not include either stamina or top notes. The Met has similarly been grooming the bass Ildar Abdrazakov, who sang Enrico (Henry VIII), but on Monday he was a youthful cipher of no particular vocal impact, rather than a scene-chewing villain.
Casting Ekaterina Gubanova as Jane (Giovanna) Seymour, whom Enrico wants to marry once he’s gotten rid of Anna, was a stopgap measure, since the originally scheduled Giovanna, Elina Garanca, canceled due to pregnancy. Gubanova’s voice was simply not big enough for the role, though she exerted herself valiantly and improved in the second half, in her duet with Anna, to give her best singing of the night.
All of the singers would have benefited from a good drilling in bel canto style, but they weren’t going to get it from Marco Armiliato, a journeyman conductor who gave an undistinguished, heavy-handed reading in the pit.
There wasn’t even any help to be had from the director, David McVicar, whose brand of realism was not a good fit for this work. Robert Jones’s sets and Jenny Tiramani’s costumes lined the Tudor court in dark shades of gray and black with touches of red, and placed the action, like so many productions before them, in a more or less historical space conceived with a modern twist, which meant large white walls moving around the stage to create random-seeming spaces within the palace.
McVicar, too, added gratuitous modern touches: having Smeaton veritably throw himself down on the queen’s fainting body, or, at the end, having the mad Anna twist up her hair as if about to hang herself by it — to say nothing of having the whole set rise up to reveal a lower level, which did nothing other than demonstrate the technical resources of the Met.
Alas, all this added up to an evening that represented what too many members of the glittering opening-night crowd probably expect of opera: something long, dull and not very believable, with a lot of gesticulation and, under it all, some pretty music.
Even Netrebko, the big star, still comes off as a willing novice, someone who doesn’t always live up to her considerable potential. If she approached the part with the focus and commitment of a Maria Callas, or if opera companies today actually invested time in helping singers master the music they’re performing, the evening might have been a whole lot better.