Vocals superb in Met's opening of 'Anna Bolena'

Posted: September 28, 2011

NEW YORK - As a global brand, the Metropolitan Opera is hitting an all-time peak.

Besides expanding to China, Israel, and Russia, the Met movie-theater simulcasts are flooding the home-video market - along with past treasures released from the Met archive on CD and DVD. Awareness is such that Monday's opening of Anna Bolena was so thick with mainstream celebrities that the audience had crazier costumes and possibly bigger egos than anybody onstage.

Oh, yes, there was an opera, the first Anna Bolena in the Met's history. The first act was a bit of a warm-up. But by the second, the opera was the thing, and not just anything.

In the triathlon of soprano roles, Anna Netrebko secured her place in operatic history. Tenor Stephen Costello, after a successful tonsillectomy (preceded by worries over his vocal condition), now has a shot at following her into such exalted realms.

As Henry VIII, Ildar Abdrazakov galvanized Donizetti's elaborate music into a portrait of sex and menace, in the story of Anne Boleyn's demise and Jane Seymour's ascendance to the throne. Tamara Mumford had some of the opera's most penetrating scenes as Smeaton, who is tortured into making false accusations against the queen he loves. If there's a vocal disappointment, it's Ekaterina Gubanova's capable but less-than-alluring Jane Seymour.

Beyond that, the opera struggled to catch fire. Donizetti's bel canto-era operas are blueprints for greatness rather than whole artistic objects. With the right interventionist performers, the music's formulas and effects can turn into an operatic tornado. The Met opening was somewhere in the middle. At times, singers short-shrifted the words - the music's rhetorical starting point. Also, elements beyond their control weren't all that well in hand.

The David McVicar black-and-white Tudor-period production made Henry VIII's sex-steeped court look like a repressed nunnery. Anna's bloodred canopy bed was symbolism at its most obvious. Conductor Marco Armiliato was routine, but given that other reputable conductors (Evelino Pido, James Conlon) have had the same problem at the Met with bel canto opera, maybe the orchestra has a stylistic blind spot.

In recent years, opera fans have questioned Netrebko's devotion to such heavy coloratura roles. Isn't she really a lyric soprano? For the moment, she's both. Though she lacks Beverly Sills' theatrical savvy in Anna Bolena, Netrebko has vocal weight (with a particularly lush middle voice these days) that allows her to command the role as much as she sings it. What brings the role alive - for her and Costello - is the soft singing. Maybe attacking high notes is more thrilling, but Netrebko's more considered approach opened doorways into her character's inner life.

Costello, Philadelphia's contribution to tenordom, not only sang well, but also with a deeper sense of vocal personality. The warm Italianate tone that has always ingratiated him with audiences feels less like a superficial effect and more like something that arises, in perhaps leaner form, from his basic vocal foundation. Less-than-meticulous moments were inevitable amid such vocal complexities, but he projected better than ever, if only because the voice now seems more rooted.

Now, if he could only learn to stand like an aristocrat . . . .

Subsequent performances:
Friday through Oct. 28, the final three with Angela Meade in the title role. Information on performances and the Oct. 15 movie-theater simulcast: 212-362-6000 or www.metopera.org.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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