“Giudici ad Angela”
New York, NY – For the majority of critics, the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena was disappointingly dull, saved only by the fiery interpretation of the title role by Anna Netrebko. Adjectives like “taxing,” “unforgiving,” and “difficult” formed a monotonous chorus of qualifiers that failed to explain what about the role was so difficult and how Netrebko, whose feral stage presence is more addictive than her inattention to musical detail and nuance, had overcome those obstacles.
Allow me to elucidate. The role of Anna Bolena, like her successors Norma, Abigaille, Lady Macbeth and Violetta to name a few, is difficult because the soprano must be in complete control of her artistic arsenal: vengeful coloratura, doleful legato, a powerful chest voice, an expressive, plush middle voice, and the ability to sing both pianissimo and fortissimo with ease and purpose in the extremes of the upper range. With only a light, utilitarian orchestration to support her, the soprano singing Anna has nothing to hide her defects behind. To enliven the score, she must also possess dramatic instincts that are sensitive to the many shifts of Donizetti’s score as Anna travels from depressed queen, regretful lover, vengeful fury, and back again.
While Netrebko has the uninhibited dramatic skills that gave flesh and bones to Donizetti’s tragic heroine, she lacks the technique to sing Anna Bolena. For three weeks the audience of the Metropolitan Opera saw a visceral characterization stained with flawed breath support, approximated coloratura, a muddy middle voice and non-existent chest voice, inexact intonation, and a general lack of vocal thrust, most audible in Netrebko’s sliding up to every pitch.
Where Netrebko falls flat (sometimes literally), Angela Meade, who assumed the role on October 21, soars. Having sung Bellini’s Norma, Rossini’s Semiramide, Mercadante’s Virginia, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena (AVA, 2008), and Verdi’s Ernani, all within three years of her professional debut, Meade knows how to navigate the treacherous bel canto scores with noble assurance.
After three weeks of Netrebko Bolenas, it was refreshing to hear Anna’s Act I aria “Come innocente giovane,” sung with Meade’s precise intonation, expertly crafted (and long!) phrases, full-voiced coloratura, and just the right amount of bite throughout her perfectly thread voice. Netrebko’s worrisome gasps for air throughout her performances, somewhat audible in the house and embarrassingly prominent in the HD broadcast, were quieted by Meade’s calculated, but human, economy of breath.
Meade lacks the dramatic ingenuity of Netrebko, but she more than compensates for her shortcomings with her expert characterization of Anna through – can you imagine- the music! We should never forget that Anna Bolena is not just the queen of England, but an ambitious, tactful woman whose charm and intelligence were an indirect agent of the Reformation. If Netrebko’s Anna is reckless and fiery, then Meade’s is noble and passionate. She sings Anna’s music with an attention to detail that is entirely absent from Netrebko’s interpretation – phrases are completed, the diction is impeccable, and her commanding chest tones are just as brilliant and effective as her soaring high notes which fill the cavernous Metropolitan Opera house with thrilling ease.
When confronted with the decision to go for the self-indulgent or the organic, Meade always opted for the latter. She sang “Al dolce guidami” with such purity of tone and simplicity of intention that it sounded like a mournful folksong that Anna had sung in her youth, rather than an excuse for exquisite pianissimi. Conversely, Meade unleashed the dramatic in “dramatic coloratura,” for the cabaletta finale to the opera, “Coppia iniqua.” She has the technical skills to take musical risks in ornamentation, leaping unexpectedly to the limits of her range and bringing the duality of Anna’s rage and resolve to the surface. With the exception of a poorly planned high E-flat at the end of the opera, they were passionately and fearlessly executed to the enhancement of the dramatic tension.
Katherine Goeldner, who sang the role of Giovanna Seymour for an indisposed Ekaterina Gubanova, has a flawed voice – short on top, sometimes wobbly, harsh and metallic in tone- but her dramatic commitment and immersion surpasses all of these flaws. In fact, the flaws make her interpretation that much more interesting than the beautifully sung Giovanna of Gubanova. Unfortunately, Goeldner completely misjudged the high B at the end of her cabaletta in Act II. The high mezzo roles of the bel canto operas are just not her territory.
Stephen Costello only partially won me over on opening night: his is a voice with tremendous heart and feeling, but he looked uncomfortable with the high-lying role of Riccardo Percy. Now, three weeks later, Costello is in full control of the role, relishing the many high Cs without fear and magnanimously giving us every ounce of his bronze-tinged tenor.
The inarguable star performance of the opera’s run is Tamara Mumford in the pants-role of Anna’s musician, Smeaton. I cannot say enough about Mumford’s voice: she possesses a veritable rainbow of colors in her sultry, youthful mezzo-soprano. She effortlessly fills with the house with a sumptuous voice that can’t help but express. When Smeaton returns for a handful of measures during Anna’s mad scene, the return of that voice, tinged with that elusively defined morbidezza of the best Golden Age singers, is arresting. Usually a throw-away role for comprimario mezzos, Mumford’s singular performance is the most consistent, well-formed, and memorable of the whole cast and perhaps the entire fall run of Anna Bolena at the Met.
Photos: Ken Howard and Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera