Anna Bolena

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[Lyric Tragedy in Two Acts]

Composer: Gaetano Donizetti

Libretto: Felice Romani

First Produced: Teatro Carcano Milan, 1830

Present Company: Vienna State Opera 2011

Director: Eric Genovese

Sets: Jacques Gabel & Claire Sternberg

Costumes: Luisa Spinatelli

Lighting: Bertrand Couderc

Video Director: Brian Large

Vienna State Opera Orchestra & Chorus

Conductor: Evelino Pidò



Anna Bolena: Anna Netrebko

Giovanna Seymour: Elīna Garanča

Enrico (Henry) VIII: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo

Lord Percy: Francesco Meli

Page Smeaton: Elisabeth Kulman

Rochefort: Dan Paul Dumitrescu

Sir Hervey: Peter Jelosits



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 41.50 GB

Bit Rate: Moderate (20-27 Mbps)

Italian DTS-HD MA 5.0

Italian LPCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: Italian, English, French, German & Spanish

Region: All

Opera runtime: 193 minutes

Deutsche Grammophon, 2011



Conception & Staging: A-

Costumes: A+

Casting: A

Singing: A

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: A

Image: A+

Audio: A

Extras Features: D

Recommendation: A



If your acquaintance with the story of Anne Boleyn comes from film, television and history books, you are in for a treat here.  Forgoing the generally understood reason why Henry married Anne in the first place - that his first wife, Kathryn of Aragon, produced no male heir - and how he was unhappy with Anne for the same reason, Gaetano Donizetti and his librettist Felice Romani, found a quite different aspect of the story better suited for operatic purposes: the triangle between the king, his queen, and her lady-in-waiting - a job title pregnant with double meaning.



Their opera begins as Henry (here: Enrico) presses Jane (Giovanna) for more than mere declarations of love and passionate embraces in secret.  For all her naiveté, Giovanna insists that she will not bed Henry without appropriate honors, and rightly points out that such is quite impossible since Henry is already married - and not only married, but to the the queen and Giovanni’s trusting employer.  When Henry intimates that he has this covered, Giovanni suddenly realizes that she has entered into a bargain with forces beyond her ken.  It may even have started to dawn on her that Anne was in a similar position not so long before.



Henry’s opportunity arrives in the person of Lord Percy, childhood sweetheart and lover to Anne before Henry, and easily taken for one of the great heroic buffoons in all opera if we were to see him as a serious player in a triangle with Anne and Henry instead of a pawn in Henry’s hands to rid himself of his wife. Henry plays Percy like flute. Percy has been called back from exile by the king and i nstead of keeping his distance from his old flame he embarrasses her in court and the trap is set.


It is not enough for Romani Donizetti to place Percy so forward in the plot - after all, there is need of a tenor - there is another character, the page Smeaton (part Cherubino, part Sméagol) who is obsessed with his queen and has stolen a locket of hers with Anne’s portrait. Smeaton adds oil to the fire that will soon engulf the queen.  Henry is beside himself with mock indignation when he discovers the three of them - Anne, Percy and Smeaton - in the queen’s chambers [best not to linger on this question] and has the three of them hailed off to prison.



And that’s just the first act.


In the second and final act, Anna is visited by Giovanna in prison where she counsels the queen to admit guilt in order to escape the death penalty.  Seeing that Anna will not purchase her freedom with infamy, Giovanna tells her that its is she that will be her successor.  Surprisingly, Anna points the finger, not at her lady-in-waiting, but at her treacherous husband.



Later, after it is learned that Smeaton has foolishly confessed to having slept with the queen in a contrived plot by Henry to further entrap her, Anna and Percy are brought before him.  It is here that the noose is further tightened by Percy’s pride when he states boldly that Anna was and is his wife.  He may be speaking metaphorically, but this is all the king needs.  Giovanna enters to beg for Anna’s forgiveness and, willing to give up the throne on her behalf, declares she does not want to be the cause of her death.


What opera of this time and style would be complete without a proper Mad Scene, and what better place for one than a prison cell where Anna imagines her wedding day, and happier days with Percy.  Before she is led away Anna hears the populace acclaiming the new king and queen as she is gives herself to the block.




The only thing keeping this Blu-ray title from straight A’s is Donizetti himself.  Anna Bolena may have been the opera that put this exceptionally prolific composer on the map, but the opera remains something of a lightweight, which is a little odd considering the tragedy at hand.  Or perhaps it is that Donizetti’s writing style doesn’t seem to me entirely suitable for the subject?  Either way, the real problem – or challenge, if you will – with the opera is the character of Percy and the lack of clear focus outside of Henry’s plot to usurp the throne from Boleyn and give it to Seymour.  Donizetti and Romani want it all and, for the most part they have it.  There are five couples: Anna & Henry, Anna & Percy, Anna & Giovanna, Giovanna & Henry and Smeaton & Anna; and three triangles with Anna at the fulcrum: one with Henry and Percy, another with Henry and Giovanna, and still another with Smeaton and Henry.



More or less equal stage time is given to all of these, but only Anna & Giovanna are given intimate breadth in musical terms.  Their scene plays at the halfway point of the opera, roughly the start of Act 2, and is the opera’s emotional center.  It is long (14 minutes), uninterrupted, and covers the entire emotional gamut.  Nothing like it exists anywhere else in the opera, so it makes sense that director Eric Genovese sees Giovanna’s journey as reflective of the deeper story, and so places her on stage whenever possible, reacting to events that will inform her life, and everyone else’s, from then on.  The trajectory of Anna’s fate is a foregone conclusion once Henry resolves to put her away. What isn’t evident at that moment is how this will play out for Giovanna; but in a way, the opera is as much about her coming to grips with that reality as it is about Anna’s decline. Genovese seems to recognize this and runs with it throughout the opera even as Percy is maddeningly dead set on burning every bridge to a future among the living - his and Anna’s.



Genovese’s stage is expansive and dark, populated by, at most, a stick of furniture in each scene and minimal suggestions of a specific space.  While there are periods where the stage is flooded with light, most often only the actors are highlighted: their costumes, sumptuous; the women, beautiful; the king, ferocious; the page, entrapped by his proximity to the queen; only Anna’s brother, Rochefort, the actor: out of place by dint of size, age and urgency.




Anna Netrebko’s voice and body has filled out since her pregnancy, the former is certainly the better for it.  Those high notes are just spectacular – and surprisingly effortless at both ends of the dynamic spectrum.  Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča is every bit the equal of Netrebko in their affecting scene together in Act 2; there was even a moment or two when I couldn’t tell which one was singing.  Garanča has remarkable control, a pliant top and an unexpected dark lower register - not a contralto, but like a forest lake at sunset.



It is absolutely essential, if we are to accept her as a real person that she be at least as beautiful as Boleyn, and she is.  The contrast of her blonde and northern iciness to Netrebko’s dark ripeness is fortuitous, but there must be more.  Garanča must also be convincing as an actress in that Giovanni is hopelessly in love with Henry, yet ashamed of how that love generates a plot to dethrone her queen.  This is subtle business and, in its way, a harder thing to bring off than anguish and madness, with is Netrebko’s lot. In my opinion, Elīna Garanča is the most interesting on the stage regardless of who she’s sharing it with.



Italian bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo has a wonderfully menacing, even predatory gaze and a forceful focus to his delivery.  As Henry, he is quite frightening, almost out of control.  There are times in the second act where he actually seems to believe in his contrived deception that Anna has actually been unfaithful with Smeaton and Percy.  Percy is sung by Italian tenor Francesco Meli, who seems to enjoy these bel canto roles.  Here he seems quite at home with a fairly high and dramatic tessitura.  I can’t say he has a particularly sweet voice, but who does these days. Meli does tend to become a forceful when pressed and by the second act seems to be unhappy singing while kneeling; still he gets the job done in a role that does men no credit.  The role of the page Smeaton is more than ably carried off by Austrian contralto Elisabeth Kulman. She has a boyish sweetness and catlike physicality that makes Smeaton dangerous as well as spirited.



Evelino Pidò clearly has great affection for this music. The VSOO plays well for him though I would have liked more presence from the woodwinds.  When speaking of early nineteenth century Italian opera, Gaetano Donizetti is often paired with Bellini as the best examples of the mellifluous bel canto style of writing for the voice.  Anna Bolena may not be the best of its breed, but it has many fine moments and can feel like a blueprint for early Verdi.



Video & Image

There is good news and better news that starts with the sensible video direction of Brian Large.  His camera moves from wide shots through zooms and allows for the occasional reaction shot.  A few too many close-ups I thought, but no more than most directors insists on.  I feel that video directors are not as thoughtful about the effect of a close-up in the overall scheme of things as a film director, and this Anna Bolena is no exception.



So much for the good news. Even better is the image quality, which is, not to put too fine a point on it, highly resolved, flawless and luscious.  For me the test of high definition is how it reproduces hair.  I usually have the impression that a headful of hair looks like so much finely ratted dreads.  But here on Deutsche Gramophone’s 1080i (I say again: “i”) Elīna Garanča golden tresses have the lightness of fine angel hair.  It’s a tangible pleasure not often granted.  Skin tones are peaches and cream for Garanča and Netrebko, and greasy and coarse for D’Arcangelo and Dumitrescu.  Fabric textures are realistic rather than heightened.  The image quality here is as good as it gets.




The usual DTS-HD MA 5-point surround and LPCM stereo options are available for the user.  I tried both for extended audition and ended up preferring the stereo.  Somewhat contrary to common experience, it is the stereo that is the more voluptuous, less edgy, better textured mix.  In fact, except for the orchestra’s being more immersive – thankfully, not too much by my standards – the surround has little going for it in comparison.  Which is not to say the surround is poor.  Far from it.  I imagine most listeners will find it more than acceptable, but you really should give the stereo a listen.



The lone essay in the enclosed booklet is a paean to Anna Netrebko who, by this date hardly needs introduction or marketing.  Elīna Garanča should have received her share.  Instead, it is she, not Netrebko or Genovese, who offers a brief synopsis of each act on disc – in wonderfully articulated German (subtitled), I might add.




Except for its scrawny bonus features, the only thing keeping this Blu-ray title from straight A’s is Donizetti himself.  That said there is some fine music here, especially the amazing duet Sul suo capo aggravi un Di for Anna and Giovanna which Netrebko and Garanča elevate to heavenly status.  That scene has an especially well-written text, some of it truly heart-breaking, as for example when Giovanna confesses her love for Henry to Anna, who is in prison on trumped up charges of infidelity: Amo Enrico e n’ho rossore. Gemo e piano e dal mio pianto soffocato amor non è. (translated here as “I love Henry and I blush for it. I groan and weep, and yet my tears do not stifle my love.”)



This was Netrebko’s first crack at the role, and critics in general were favorably impressed. John Yohalem wrote in his piece for Opera News: The pathetic is a good emotion for Anna Netrebko . . . but her sudden moments of rage are also thrilling. Her voice is strong, lovely and easy here . . . Her ornaments are elegantly inserted in the line . . . Her mad scene holds attention through its varied tantrums . . . She appears to be having the time of her life.  And of Elina Garanča, Barnaby Rayfield wrote for Fanfare: Garanca is the finest Seymour I've come across, her luscious, smooth mezzo soaring above those accompaniments beautifully, and she colors and shapes a line like the great names of the past. A decent actress, too, capturing Jane's brittle mix of ambition and guilt well.


Warmly recommended.

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

August 25, 2012

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