By David Salazar
The most notable of the performance's components is its new production by one of the Met's superstar directors, David McVicar who made his debut in a successful Trovatore a few seasons ago. His success was so great that Peter Gelb, ever the enthusiast not only signed McVicar up to direct the Met premiere of Anna Bolena, but also the other two Donizettis operas that comprise the "Queens" trilogy and Handel's Giulio Cesare. McVicar's directing style is essentially conservative in its stance, respecting the composer and librettists intentions, but often adding some interesting theatrical devices to energize the works. In Trovatore, it was a turntable on which the scenery rotated, enabling the opera's propulsive tempo to flow without disruption. Before the opening of Bolena, McVicar promised a traditional approach to Donizetti's work, and there is no doubt that for the most part, he came through. As far as the wardrobe (the production's finest element) is concerned. And also as far as the setting is concerned (the opera is still set in a palace, albeit one that is made up of gray squared walls). And he also delivers as far as the "traditional" outlook on opera staging is concerned. This final point is likely the most important considering Peter Gelb's constant emphasis in interviews on his attempts to make his new productions "more theatrical experiences." Ever since he has taken the helm as general manager, I have constantly asked myself what he means by this? Acting is often the point of contention in this matter. Gelb and other proponents of the "theatrical opera" movement, have often been quick to assert that in the past, opera was a bunch of singer's standing around on lavish productions. If this be the case, then what exactly makes McVicar's production a theatrical production? What makes it different enough that Gelb would open his wallet and give McVicar a blank check to make his new Anna Bolena?
I won't give a definitive answer, until I have described a few points about the production. As the opera opens, we are introduced to a dark scene where a lot of chorus members stand around in a clutter. They pretty much stay locked in their spot, with the occasional person coming in and out at seemingly random moments for the remainder of the scene. The lone exception is Anna Bolena. During the pezzo concertato at the end of the Act, the set is split in two halves by a wall, during which the massive chorus clutters the back and sides of the stage (with the occasional person coming on and off stage) and the principles all stand firmly at the footlights. The lone exception is Anna Bolena who moves around looking for an escape. Act 2, really doesn't change much, as the majority of the cast and chorus spend the majority of the time locked in place. Again, the only exception is Anna Bolena. It would be easy to criticize McVicar's inefficient, bored use of the chorus, but he is not the only theater-turned-opera director who doesn't know what to do with a chorus. Last year's Don Carlo, directed by Nicholas Hytner was plagued by a chorus standing around looking lost on stage. A few years ago, the Met's Peter Grimes suffered from the same deficiency. I am not stating that all directors are inefficient in this regard, but McVicar's Bolena is a prime example of unoriginal work. What makes the matter worse is that the set lacks any sense of depth. It is a single flat surface, decorated by large flats and some representations of windows and torches. Aside from that, the entire stage is lacking in any form of furniture or elaboration. This lack of elaboration makes it difficult to truly get a grasp on the world of the story and the inconsistent use of space (Seymour being able to walk around the wall that blocks off Bolena's room at the end of Act 1), makes the set come off as unfinished and lazy work. It is no wonder that the chorus looks lost throughout and that the movements are almost non-existent, making any sense of character or story mute, save for the text that they are singing. Is this really the theatricality that Gelb is spending his money on? Is it really better than those elaborate Zeffirelli productions (which are at the forefront of criticism of "traditional" productions) that place too much importance on the visuals and none on the characters? If I recall correctly, his Boheme production, with it's beautiful rendition of a Parisian street in Act two, is built on multiple levels with elaborate furniture and perceptible locations as to add dimension to the world of the story. Furthermore, this depth and detail is not only limited to scenery as it is clear viewing said production that every single person on stage is alive as a character. The counterargument would be that minimalist theater enables the audience to work their imagination. However, there is no desire to work the imagination for the viewer, when it is clear that the performers onstage are not fully engaged with their world as is the case with McVicar's production.
All this rambling about inefficient use of chorus and set design would be pointless if not for the fact that it leads to a dull, uneventful performance. Donizetti's music is inconsistent and the libretto meanders a bit, particularly at the start of the opera, and this production's lack of life both in the acting and scenery (and lighting which is flat throughout, instead of the sharp contrast the poster hints at) only serves to emphasizes its deficiencies (conductor Marco Armiliato doesn't help, but more on that later).
I have yet to make mentions about the principles, though I have constantly referenced Anna Bolena as the lone sense of movement and energy in the performance. Anna Netrebko, who performed the iconic soprano role, has long been a fixture of the opera world as not only a strong singer, but an electrifying actress. It is rare to see her give a performance lacking in both of these elements, but last night happened to be one of them. Her singing was riveting and sublime for most of the night as she swept through the mountainous difficulties of this role with ease and fluidity. Even when she seemed to run out of breath on a top note, she was able to recuperate with no sign of fatigue or insecurity. It was thrilling and chilling performance. However, her acting, which is generally her strong suit, was not on full display here, but to no fault of her own. She constantly looked for an outlet onto which she could pour her pent up energy, moving around the staging attempting to interact with her surroundings and cast members, but there was no one there for her. That isn't to say that the other principles were not engaged (some of them weren't), but they too seemed lost and reverted to familiar/stock operatic arm gestures (raising the arm in a fistlike manner to denote strength, raising arms to the heavens, etc) to "act" their way through the night. King Enrico, played/sung by Ildar Abadrazakov and his coarse and suprisingly bored bass, reverted to the arm gestures a bit too often to denote his strength and control. Stephen Costello and his beautiful, but inconsistent tenor also looked lost, often taking Netrebko's lead to get through their scenes together. His upper range seems to lack any sort of stability often sound shrill and uneasy. His mid/lower range however is another matter completely. It is suave, elegant, and potent. His saving grace is that he is still young and may be able to stabilize his upper range in years to come. Ekaterina Gubanova was an inconsistent Giovanna Seymour though she was announced as suffering from illness. Her singing in the first act was labored, with her upper notes coming off as wobbly and insecure. Her second act duet with Bolena was another manner, introducing a Gubanova that was not only in control vocally, but was able to deliver a strong sense of emotion in her singing. Aside from Netrebko, Tamara Mumford was the night's best performance. Mumford has a gorgeous, steady, and delicate mezzo that never sounded uncomfortable or strained. She is a singer to look out for in coming seasons. Eduardo Valdes, Sir Hervey, and Keith Miller, Lord Rochefort, were serviceable in their minor roles.
Marco Armiliato proved to be the night's biggest disappointment. I have stated the blandness of the production, but nothing sounded more uninterested than the Met orchestra on this night. There was no sense of energy or commitment in the music making, with the tempi being either overly slow and labored, or excessively fast and inconsiderate with the singers. This inconsistency only lessened the effect of the score adding to the aforementioned lack of dramatic force and propulsion. I was never awed by the variety of colors in Donizetti's score, as they were rarely explored or emphasized.
Save for some heroics from a few cast members, this performance, which should have been monumental and historic, felt routine. Rather than being the evolution of "traditional" opera productions toward greater theatricality, this production felt like an amateur production by a smaller company who tried to protect its funds rather than its artistic integrity.