Opera has never lacked for soprano showcases, but Anna Bolena has diva running especially deep in its DNA.
Donizetti wrote the work in the fall of 1830 in Como, Italy, at a villa owned by the great singer Giuditta Pasta, who was to star as Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife. It may have been Pasta’s epic presence—we are told that “no language could convey an idea of the beauty, the intensity, the sublimity of her acting”—or Felice Romani’s deep, humane libretto or Donizetti’s readiness to bring his artistry to a new level. Whatever the explanation, the result was a triumph: one of the great operas of all time and one of the great roles, a test of both vocal display and vocal control that culminates in a brilliant final scene in which the queen, unjustly accused of adultery, prepares to be executed.
But by the late 19th century it had mostly vanished from the repertory, and it had never been done at the Metropolitan Opera before Monday evening, when it opened the company’s 128th season as a vehicle for the Met’s star soprano, Anna Netrebko.
Ms. Netrebko’s voice, at 40, is warm and full, without edge. Her appeal is deceptively simple: when she sings, you don’t want her to stop. Her performance is both daring and assured. At the end of Act I, she almost chokes out “Guidici? Ad Anna?” (“Judges? For Anne?”) when she realizes her fate has been sealed, then telescopes the following note outward, pivoting from shock to rage. She faces upstage at key moments, trusting that she can convey emotion through posture alone.
Some opera fans imagine coloratura in a vacuum, as a mindless series of vocal calisthenics. This attitude has rewarded singers who merely dazzle. But Ms. Netrebko is in the tradition of Maria Callas, who understood that coloratura should be an organic outgrowth of the musical line, a means of amplifying emotion. Her runs and trills, accurate and stylish, never exist for their own sake.
“She was always restrained in her use of fioriture, which she employed only to heighten the expressiveness of her singing,” Stendhal once wrote of Pasta’s approach to ornamentation. “Moreover, she never used fioriture any longer than her artistic purposes required.” This could just as easily describe Ms. Netrebko’s Bolena.
The opera’s finale is often referred to as a “mad” scene, but it goes far beyond that. Unlike the mad scene in, say, Donizetti’s own Lucia di Lammermoor, in Bolena the queen moves in and out of delirium. In much of 19th-century opera we are watching the spectacle of a vulnerable, pathetic woman becoming even more vulnerable and pathetic. Anna Bolena is the stuff of classical tragedy, a queen fighting heroically against her degradation. Fiery and passionate, but with a core of poignancy, Ms. Netrebko vividly embodied the character’s struggle, especially in her moments with others, like her agonized scene with Jane Seymour (the excellent Ekaterina Gubanova), her rival for Henry.
Unlike with several recent Met productions of early-19th-century operas by the directors Bartlett Sher and Mary Zimmerman, director David McVicar takes Bolena seriously (as he did Verdi’s Il Trovatore in 2009). He doesn’t apologize for it or put it in air quotes.
The design, dominated by a large rotating wall of gray-painted brick, sticks to recent Met precedent: ornately detailed period costumes and evocative lighting in front of neutral backgrounds. It’s a combination that registers better in H.D.-broadcast close-ups than in the house, where it lacks sustained visual interest. There aren’t the silly excesses of, say, Nicholas Hytner’s Don Carlo from last year, but neither are there that production’s ravishing scenic coups.
As in Il Trovatore, Mr. McVicar loves to have stuff happening. The chorus at least feels alive and connected to the drama, even if occasionally over-directed to the point of twitchiness. In the opening scene, the anxious Anne tells the musician Smeaton to entertain her. His song succeeds only in upsetting her even more, and our focus should be on the two of them: his attempt to please her, her unsettled emotions. But Mr. McVicar adds in a formal dance for the courtiers, and we watch them instead of Anne and Smeaton. A lot is happening, but we miss the real point of the sequence.
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.