Monday, November 30, 2015

First Tudor Queen Down – Two More To Go

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena
Metropolitan Opera
October 9, 2015

Queen Anna Bolena unleashes her rage
Photo credit: New York Times
Lei: As bel canto lovers, we are always over the moon when we get to see an opera from Donizetti’s “Tudor trilogy.” In this series the incredibly beautiful and virtuosic singing also serves the purpose of expressing a range of dramatic emotions that runs the gamut, particularly for the regal title roles. Each of these works features a most complex female lead, a queen who rules, loves, rages, suffers, fights, avenges and melts (not necessarily in that order). The singing here is so challenging that there are very few artists able to tackle it. So, when the Met announced that it was going to present all three of the “Donizetti Queens” in the same season, with the title role sang each time by one of the most exciting sopranos around, Sondra Radvanovsky, we started jumping up and down, giddy with excitement and anticipation. Drama! Vocal fireworks! Thundering yet tender but crazy queens!

The Queen cannot believe she's fallen into Henry VIII's trap
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: Donizetti’s Anna Bolena is a rare gem. Despite or perhaps due to the musical supremacy of its score and the vocal extravagance it demands of its singers, the first of Donizetti’s three queens only appears all too infrequently. In fact, this season the Met is one of the only two opera houses staging it around the world (the other being Bergamo) – how lucky for us! The role of its heroine comprises an odyssey of musical moods and emotional tones that is among the most dynamic in the repertoire. With its forbidding vocal demands and its broad range that spans the whole spectrum of human emotions from somber sadness to raw feminine heroism, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena is one of the great soprano assoluta roles par excellence, up there with Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s third queen, the Elizabeth of Roberto Devereux, who will be making her Met debut later this season.

This was Sondra Radvanovsky’s night in every way. From the very start, she rendered the reflective, nostalgic mood of her opening aria, Come, innocente giovane through lyrical low-lying phrases and intricately delicate coloratura juxtaposed to flexible high notes with several flights into the uppermost registers.

Regal dignity
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lei: In this early aria, the forlorn queen ruminates on her estranged husband and her difficult life at court as a queen who fails to produce male heirs (though she did give birth to Elizabeth but that’s for another opera…). Things heat up shortly thereafter, with Anna’s private, ill-fated encounter with her ex-lover Percy and her subsequent arrest by Henry for adultery (though she was not really adultering – evil skirt-chasing Henry is just making up excuses to get rid of her and marry his new lover, Giovanna Seymour).  

Queen Anna, Queen-to-be Elizabeth and the lusty page Smeaton
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
In terms of the story and score, Anna Bolena’s initial trajectory presents a powerful woman who is steadfast in her convictions as she withstands the temptation of seeing Percy again. Here Radvanovsky demonstrated great feats of coloratura flexibility and a truly resolute, stouthearted tone. In the concluding Ah, segnata è la mia sorte, Radvanovsky gave us the full power of her dramatic sound. The full heroic strength of a true soprano assoluta was on display.

The treacherous Giovanna pleads with Anna
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: Incredibly moving was her forgiveness of Giovanna Seymour in the beginning of Act II. The two women share a dramatically charged moment in which Bolena realizes that her rival for the affection of the king is none other than her closest confidant and friend Giovanna Seymour. After an initial moment of surprised growing rage, Radvanovsky’s soaring vocal lines in her recognition that Seymour is as much a victim as she is in this moment of human tenderness and understanding were so transcendent that they sent tingles through my body. The dark dusky hues in her voice that shone through were just so human. 

Lei: This Act II opener really caught me off guard in its surprising human and moving twist. One would expect Bolena to unleash all sorts of insults on her double faced friend who’s sleeping with her husband, but the queen here actually forgives her as she’s been in her same shoes before (when she was the king’s lover causing him to dump his then queen) and so she understands the lure of Henry VIII and the power that comes with him (è reo soltanto / chi tal fiamma accese in te). On the other hand, though, Anna’s forgiveness has the effect of further punishing Giovanna who just cannot bear the guilt of having betrayed the trust of her amazingly gracious queen (ah! peggiore è il tuo perdono / dello sdegno ch’io temea).

The Queen suspects her husband's fidelity
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: Dauntless during her trial, Anna expresses regret in haunting, pathetic phrases, ever somber but understated. Radvanovsky’s vocal agility was sensational. Her encyclopedic singing was simply breathtaking. And if you were weren’t satisfied with all of the ground she covered by the end of Act I, she really pulled out all the stops in Act II.

Lei: Her performance was extraordinary throughout the first two thirds of the evening. But by the time she got her grandiose finale that climaxes with the famous “mad scene” in her prison cell and subsequent execution, it was like she was only pacing herself in the lead up to this phenomenal passage of music.

Coppia iniqua!
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: For her last scene, Donizetti gives us a panorama of her emotional existence. Radvanovsky’s voice masterfully embodied every contour of her heroine’s psychic landscape with resilience and stamina. Her vocal technique ranged across the spectrum – the melancholy piano pianissimo of her sad and somber reminiscence back to happier times (Al dolce guidami), the hurt (Cielo, a’ miei lunghi spasimi), the heroic (Coppia iniqua). It’s an emotional storm. And Radvanovsky was mind blowing. The way her voice got all friable and frail, almost like dry parchment, during the most delicate moment of her big climax in the mad scene, ranks up there with some of the great Met performances of my humble experience. It’s just a shame that the rest of the cast was rarely at her level.

Serial husband Henry VIII
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lei: Ildar Abdrazakov, who is usually reliable, had his moments but from time to time tonight just couldn’t get there. His voice seemed to drop off and was almost inaudible. Which is only made more conspicuous by the sheer force of his extraordinary female lead. I hate to say it but his heart just didn’t seem to be in it. Taylor Strayton as Percy was a mediocre tenor at best, though he has shown signs of improvement since the last time we saw him in Bellini's La Sonnambula a few years back. Milijana Nikolic in her Met debut as Giovanna Seymour was solid, though I found her sound to be muddled, almost milky. Her enunciation of the Italian wasn’t as crystal clear and cutting as Radvanovsky’s.  

Smeaton pours his heart out.
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: The court singer, Smeaton, sung with romantic agility by one of my favorite bel canto mezzo sopranos, Tamara Mumford was perhaps the highlight of the supporting cast. She has great stage presence and really embodies the lovelorn longing of the young Cherubino-esque farfallone amoroso, who flies a little too close to the flame with tragic results for all involved.

Anna falls into the trap
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
I also came to a greater appreciation of Sir David McVicar’s production this time. I was a little underwhelmed by the starkness of Robert Jones’s sets when we saw this production at its debut back on opening night in 2011. But tonight they really struck me as almost painterly in their attention to period details like the cavernous space of the early modern royal castle and palace. The modular design makes for fluid set changes that keep the action flowing almost oneirically. And Jenny Tiramani’s costumes are just spectacular. So plush in their florid Renaissance flair. Many scenes looks like a Holbein or a Bronzino painting. With the light flooding into the vast interiors of the palace through high gothic windows and the pencil thin trees that populate the wasteland that lies just outside the castle walls, the set design is starkly expressionistic in its minimalist efficacy.

The sets for the big Anna/Giovanna confrontation scene
Photo credit: Met
A more defiant Anna by Netrebko in 2011
Photo credit: Met
Lei: Interestingly, in this run of the production they switched things up for the last “mad scene.” Back in 2011, when Anna Netrebko sung the title role, she wore a fitted black gown and, after attacking the raging aria Coppia iniqua, she lifted her long hair to bare her neck for the executioner’s ax and marched resolutely towards her death, with a feisty defiance that was exciting to see. Radvanovsky, on the other hand, was wearing a loose white tunic, almost like an under garment or the smock of an in-patient at a mental hospital, and, after her ladies in waiting cut her hair to a short bob, she was blindfolded and guided gropingly towards the executioner. While Radvanosky’s singing was sublime (and, in my opinion, superior and more convincing than the Russian’s soprano), her acting was of a terrified madwoman, quite a change from Netrebko’s dramatic and proud interpretation of that same scene. One thing did not change though, the blood-red silk curtain swishing down the scene immediately after the sight of the scary executioner and his ax – that’s what I call a powerful finale!

Lui & Lei

Radvanovsky's Anna loses it before the executioner
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Netrebko's Queen is regal till the end
Photo credit: Met

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