Mr. McVicar goes for muscular, realistic-seeming drama: characters tend to get thrown to the ground, and someone remarked at intermission that it was like watching the blood-and-guts melodrama Cavalleria Rusticana in Tudor dress. At times, though, the focus on so-called realism undermines the production’s effectiveness.
Much of what happens seems improbable. Sure, Jane Seymour really would have arrived for her confrontation with Henry with two ladies-in-waiting in tow. A guard really would have been pacing outside the cell where Anne was imprisoned.
But in both cases, putting those extra frissons of pseudo-authenticity onstage is a distraction rather than an enhancement. You end up watching the ladies-in-waiting—who first face upstage, then turn down, then up again—instead of Henry and Seymour. And each time that guard passes by during Anne’s aching “Al dolce guidami” in the final scene, you don’t get a sense of “being there,” just a sense of nagging frustration.
Most problematic is Mr. McVicar’s approach to the final scene, for which the entire stage lifts, à la Aida, to reveal a vaulted catacomb beneath. The chorus is lined up at the front of the stage, and they part to reveal Anna kneeling, her head down in an eerie premonition of her imminent beheading.
The claustrophobic setting may be intended as a contrast to the almost oppressively airy setting of the rest of the opera, but it reads merely as cramped, crowding Ms. Netrebko to a narrow strip of stage and blurring what should be precise distinctions between the scene’s different sections. There’s never any real payoff to the big set change, and it results in an unfortunate choice at the very end. Anne has finished her furious cabaletta “Coppia iniqua,” and she begins to wrap up her long hair—a silly idea, but one Ms. Netrebko has imported from the Vienna production—as the whole set lowers, revealing the waiting executioner, brooding in the shadows like something out of Turandot.
To end Bolena without Boleyn is a mystifying anticlimax that demonstrates an odd lapse in understanding of the opera’s dynamics, and those of opera in general. Sometimes it’s the prima donna’s moment. We get that the executioner is waiting; we want to watch Ms. Netrebko.
Mr. McVicar is committed to storytelling, but those stories can sometimes feel crowded rather than clear. You never get the sense with him, as you do with some other Met directors, that he isn’t competent or that he doesn’t respect the work he’s interpreting. But at key moments he misses the point. Ms. Netrebko, in her finest Met performance so far, never does.