Dame Joan Sutherland's performance last night of the doomed Tudor queen Anne Boleyn in Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" was a sovereign accomplishment in more than just the obvious literal sense.
Dame Joan was just about everything one could have hoped she would be -- this great singer, almost 40 years into her career, assuming one of the most taxing roles in bel canto opera, and one that she started doing only two years ago.
Just a sample: We keep saying nothing is definitive in music, but I cannot imagine anyone, Sutherland herself or any other singer past or present (including Callas), intoning more perfectly that magical moment at the end where the demented Anne, imprisoned in the Tower of London and facing the scaffold, breaks into prayer ("Cielo, a' miei lunghi spasimi"). It is perhaps the most moving single passage in this long opera. Sutherland made it an object lesson in what makes bel canto legato different from other singing. Lines flowed with magisterial proportions. Every note was exactly focused. There was not even a hint of a break in the rich, perfectly rounded tonal focus as the phrases rose and fell.
It is common to approach the voices of singers as they get older in terms of what they are not, meaning deficiencies. To examine Dame Joan that way is to turn the tables. What her incomparable high notes did not have last night, for example, was the wobble that is almost inevitable at her age (58). There's not the remotest hint. If there was even a trace of a flaw, it was a very infrequent note in the recitatives (they're supposed to be the easy part) that was a little fuzzy in focus.
This performance of "Anna," though, was not just a Sutherland triumph.
There was the opera itself, which fell out of the repertory for close to three-quarters of a century because singers were not equipped for it. It is Donizetti at his best. The quintet in the first act ranks with the "Lucia" sextet. And the final mad scene is a masterpiece.
Conductor Richard Bonynge, as usual, insisted on including every last note, thus for once we had Percy's lovely "Vivi tu," which is often dropped (impeccably sung by tenor Jerry Hadley). He also had the Opera House orchestra and the Washington Bach Consort chorus in splendid form.
The most distinguished of the other singers was mezzo Judith Forst, who has a big voice, a command of style and dramatic intensity.
Another standout: bass-baritone Gregory Yurisich as Henry VIII, though a needed touch of menace was lacking.
The Washington Performing Arts Society really stuck its neck out on this one. It cost in the six figures, and there was no way the organization could help but lose money on it. Still, it chose to cover itself with glory.