Friday, October 09, 2015

The last moment of innocence

Anna Bolena - Metropolitan Opera, 10/5/2015
Radvanovsky, Barton, Costello, Abdrazakov, Mumford, Crawford / Armiliato

A star vehicle - which this opera is, though it's full of moments for all leads - doesn't quite reveal itself until a revival like this, with a soprano equipped for extremes of sound and drama and the large-scale deployment of both. As it did in Norma, however, Sondra Radvanovsky's presence can expose the shortcomings of those who are nevertheless pretty good.

Not that Radvanovsky herself was perfect. She didn't really warm up until the last scene of Act I, seemingly as uneasy as Anne herself while she waits for the other shoe to drop. But as the trap springs, and the opera transforms into a series of duet/confrontations, both she and her voice lock into the awful course of events with stupendous effect. Act II begins with Radvanovsky outshouting Jamie Barton and ends with a tour-de-force of quiet singing (topped off with, of course, more fireworks) in a mad scene that makes little sense absent the moment-seizing tragic charge and tragic finality that was the reason for this opera's birth. (Giuditta Pasta, the first Anna Bolena as well as the first Norma, was as famous a tragedienne as one can find in operatic history.) A good start to her star Met season.

Stephen Costello, as in the original run, was more impressive for his well-textured middle part of his voice than his higher forays, though whatever ailment forced him to cancel the previous performance may still have been afflicting him. The other returning singers make as fine an impression as last time: Abdrazakov's firmness as Henry VIII actually won him some villain boos at curtain, and Tamara Mumford is still a glorious clarion sound for the small role of Mark Smeaton. David Crawford as Anne's brother doesn't quite have Keith Miller's presence, but was strong in his small part.

The main change was this year's Tucker winner Jamie Barton as Jane Seymour. She actually already sang the part opposite Radvanovsky's Anne in Chicago last year, and their Act II duet was the barn-burner you'd expect. But as thrilling as it is to have an obvious next woman up in the lineage of big, loud American mezzos, Barton underdelivered in the starring opportunity that follows. Here Jane - pleading for Anne's life to an unsympathetic Henry, and reacting to his refusal - gets to show genuine pathos, regret, and command of both a long slow line and the more elaborate displays of the finale. Barton had - as on the rest of the night - a big sound, but the nuances of rhythm, line, and feeling were lacking.

I think conductor Marco Armiliato has to take some of the blame, though. Sometimes his solid, singer-sympathetic conducting is just the thing (he gives Radvanovsky a nice solid base to make the twists and turns of the final scene hold together), but for certain parts of the evening - particularly this scene and the following between Percy and Anne's brother Rochefort - Armiliato's insistence on regularity of tone, rhythm, and phrase just steamrolls the deeper communicative potential of Donizetti's music. He was probably better for this than for Trovatore (more on that elsewhere), but I'm glad that Riccardo Frizza is conducting the next installment in this series.

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What we see in this vivid representation of the story is this: Anne begins the opera fretting about the future with good reason... she doesn't really have one. Instead she is pushed backwards in time, put face to face again with her old flame Percy and then with her own act of usurpation (from the first wife, Catherine of Aragon). Finally, at the end no longer a participant in the slow-motion mortal combat of the court but its helpless victim, she returns - if only briefly - to the last point of innocent joy, or rather just as she fatally steps away from it and towards ambition. But to hear that lost joy sounded - even in madness and memory - at the end by as significant a voice as Radvanovsky's makes all the gloom before and after worth it... to us if not to her.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.