Sunday, October 16, 2011


Some local news to catch you up on, but first, the live moviecast of ANNA BOLENA.

Loved it. I emerged newly convinced of the potential for bel canto to convey serious drama. Beverly Sills convinced me of that back in the day, and she was my first and until today only Anna B. I still remember her (in Capobianco's production) giving the guard a big slap at the end of the Big Arrest Scene.

I also retain a vivid aural memory of her "Coppia iniqua," but not, sorry to say, any memory of how she handled it dramatically, other than to say that Beverly never neglected the dramatic side of her bel canto roles.

Anyway, Anna Netrebko nailed it. In the past there has been a spectrum of views on whether she could sing bel canto, with a discernible drift of majority opinion towards approving her as a verismo soprano (and in Russian opera, of course), but not in anything else. But in yesterday's ANNA, the technique-mavens were at least impressed at her progress since her PURITANI a few years ago, and I was just enchanted. Her voice had the richness of Callas at her best, she had trills (real or imitation, I'm not sure, but effective) for "Coppia iniqua," and she had (here we in the movie theaters are privileged) dramatic intensity throughout.

(Another privilege we had: Netrebko doing her "naughty Anna" bit in her pre-curtain interview with Gelb when she turned from him to the camera to add "The Tudors" quietly to her list of preparatory movie-viewing.)

Strong supporting cast throughout. Ildar Adbrazakov is a strong bass-baritone whose Enrico replicated the moody tyrant portrayed by Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons. Note to Gelb and other impresarii, tho': Ildar is a treasure, but he's a bass-baritone, not a bass. In roles that really require a bass, make sure you cast Furlanetto (like Silva in the upcoming ERNANI), or Pape.

Since this opera lacks a no-kidding baritone role, like Enrico Ashton in LUCIA, there is no need to distinguish sharply between the baritone and a bass with whom he shares the stage, such as Raimondo. A bass-baritone Enrico VIII is fine if he's a powerful one like Ildar.

(Ildar would be a perfect Ivan Khovansky in KHOVANSHCHINA -- but hey, crazy Met, you've cast him as Dosifei in the long-awaited KH. revival next spring, with undoubted bass Anatoly Kotscherga as Ivan. Pardon me but I think you're crazy. Should totally be the other way around.)

Stephen Costello's Percy -- ah yes, the voice that made me tweet "omg tenor!" when I was listening casually to the premiere over the 'net. What a gift to the lyric tenor world!

Ekaterina Gubanova was a weak link for me. She has a real mezzo voice -- brava for that -- but the role of "Giovanna" Seymour goes high. Gubanova's voice showed itself dramatic indeed, to the point of harshness at times.

Also: while we all have our potted rants against the "modern trend" of casting by looks, the very fact that I and so many others were watching this live performance in a movie theater shows it's a bit late to lock that particular barn-door, so let me just add that, despite her excellent acting, Gubanova was a few crumpets short of the sort of breakfast for which one could imagine Henry ditching Anne Boleyn.

By chance I picked up an OPERA NEWS from a few months ago and saw that Gubanova was Fricka in La Scala's WALKURE last spring. A good review, and I could easily imagine her being brilliant in that role.

In this run of BOLENA, Gubanova has the disadvantage (for which we must spot her some points) of replacing Latvian lovemuffin Elina Garanca, the Met's new Carmen, who was Jane Seymour to Netrebko's Bolena in a production last spring(?) in Vienna.

Garanca was scheduled for the Met's production too, but, well, l'amour est un oiseau rebel, and La Garanca turned up with a bun in the oven at just a time when the baby-bump would have introduced an unhistorical complication into the already-thick story of Anne, Jane, and Henry. Quite frankly, the opening chorus of "the king's eye turns to another" would, in the age of surtitles/Met-titles, have just slain them in the aisles. Congratulations on the new life coming into the world, Elina, and we'll hope to catch your Seymour in the future when maybe we won't "Sey" so much....

A shout-out, please, to my Twitter friend Keith Miller -- @KeithMillerBass -- whose tweets are full of opera-historical quizzes, and whose performance as Lord Rochford, Anne's brother, showed a fine bass-baritone voice and brought an extra dose of gravitas to the stage.

Tamara Mumford nearly stole every scene she was in as Smeton, and in Eduardo Valdes, who played Hervey, the Met has a new character-tenor of the love-to-hate type.

Marco Armiliato impressed me as a conductor who knows and loves bel canto, and who could and did keep the drama going well.

How well does he know it? Well, you couldn't necessarily tell from the camera coverage of the orchestra, but he conducted the overture without opening his score. This comes from a spy in the house. (My mom likes it when I call her that.) After the overture he started using his score.

(I think there is pith in James Levine's talkback to colleagues who rebuked him for relying on the printed score: "Why not? I can read music.")

The production: dark; the spots of color were rare and presumably deliberate. And why not? Henry's, court historically, was dark, not the place of soon-it'll-be-Shakespeare enlightenment we often see in historical dramas made in the Anglophone world . Costume designer Jenny Tiramani (think Monty Python's Ann Elk, but shorter, and actually knowing her stuff) says the surviving clothes and documentary evidence shows early Tudor courtwear was much darker than you often see depicted: lots of black velvet, black satin, and black silk.

And -- living at the whim a moody tyrant -- it was a scary place to exist. I'm so glad McVicar captured this, and I'm so glad he included (tho' the libretto does not require it) the historical fact that Smeton was tortured. You know that line from A Man for all Seasons? -- Norfolk says it first, to More, in confidence, but Cromwell later repeats it back to Norfolk, in irony, demonstrating the omnipotence of the Tudor spy-state: "This isn't Spain -- this is England!"

My point exactly. Tho' Catholic, I love DON CARLO as much as the next guy -- but I'm glad that Italian opera sometimes puts on stage historical moments that show Reformation-oriented royal courts acting in tyrannical ways too.