Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought as royals and courtiers raged magnificently through the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night, if we commoners could hire composers of Gaetano Donizetti’s caliber to elevate our nastier qualities into noble passions? Selfish, petulant, or petty people could order up an “Anne Boleyn,” the treatment that Donizetti administered to Henry VIII’s unfortunate and unlikable second wife, making her tantrums not just palatable or sympathetic but sublime. Like other operatic queens (not to be confused with opera queens), Donizetti’s Anna Bolena rules by the absolute power of her feelings. Her needs are the magnetic north of the court’s emotional life. Choruses join in her laments, and the orchestra amplifies her sorrows. Beside her furies, Henry’s wrath becomes mere fussing. That is why he needs her dead.
The Met has loaded this emotional cargo on the shapely shoulders of the soprano Anna Netrebko, currently the company’s most bankable star. Anna Bolena contains the usual complement of crowd scenes and pageantry, but its success depends almost entirely on the soprano’s virtuosic fervor, which is one reason the Met has never staged it before. Confident that Netrebko would deliver, the company launched the season with a new production by David McVicar, a stodgy but serviceable Tudor spectacle complete with molded-plastic castle, dour lighting, and opulent doublets.
If this opera gilds human faults, it bares musical ones without pity. Wild vindictiveness is expected; wild pitch is not. On opening night, Netrebko wilted at first, then rallied so convincingly that the two acts seemed almost stitched together from two different performances. In Act I, she often circled around a note before finding the center of its pitch and allowed the bright-voiced mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova to upstage her, just as the real-life Jane Seymour did to Anne. It didn’t help that Netrebko and the conductor Marco Armiliato seemed to be communicating through a cloud of static. But after an act-long intermission, which allowed the ladies in the audience time to pilot their gowns down crowded aisles and gave the cast a pause in which to savor its dissatisfaction, the performance more or less snapped into focus. Ildar Abdrazakov rumbled regally as Henry. Stephen Costello occasionally had to heave himself over the top of his range to reach the highest notes, but otherwise he lilted with grace and a pleasantly grainy tenor through the role of Anna’s hapless non-lover Percy. And as for Netrebko, she found her own triumph so irresistible that she permitted herself a grin during one especially rowdy mid-scene ovation.
Just making it to the final curtain is a victory of sorts for the soprano. The fantastically prolific Donizetti, who could churn out a new show every few months, used his kit bag of clichés sparingly here. The finale is a technical and emotional tour de force in which Anna swings tactically from lucidity to delirium and back again, because what is the point of losing your mind if you’re losing your audience? The vocal part fans out from the middle register, dropping down to a B flat that lives somewhere in the soprano’s chest cavity and soaring to a cloud-slicing high C. In between, the melodic line fills with hopeful air in one measure and goes slack with desperation in the next. High notes go scudding above the orchestra like distant kites, at once wild and controlled.
Even at her best, Netrebko picks her way through the part’s intricacies, alighting here and there on a subtlety she finds congenial and ignoring the rest. She has a talent, though, for dancing around her weaknesses and producing excitement despite them. The result is an impressive but hazy character, one whose motivations remain elusive. It’s neither fair nor quite avoidable to invoke the twin specters of Maria Callas and Beverly Sills, singers of virtually opposite temperament who mined different marvels from this role. Sills banked on the rush of virtuosity and turned Anna into a glittering monarch marching off to her death at the hands of dullards. Callas made her savage and dangerous, a force that could never be tamed, only expunged. Netrebko’s Anna is a less compelling creature, a sentimental narcissist besotted by the sound of her own floated pianissimos. When, in the final moments, she holds her tresses aloft to bare her neck for the executioner’s axe, the defiant gesture seems apt, but only because it makes sense that this Anna’s final thoughts should be for her hair.
Vagueness imbues the whole production, from which McVicar has banned all color except for some flashes of silk in the sovereign’s cloak and a canopy bed so tall, narrow, and red that it looks like a prototype for the classic English phone booth. More blurriness emanates from the pit. Armiliato’s conducting can get so lackluster at times that it seems as though sloppiness were an artistic choice. On this night, the crackle of Donizetti’s score dissipated in a cloud of approximation. Ensemble scenes, which the Met’s more-absent-than-not music director James Levine unfailingly buffs to a thrilling seamlessness, had a certain, shall we say, improvisational feel.
A single performance may not be a symptom of anything, but this was a season opener, the widely broadcast Met premiere of a work that the company has famously neglected, and it made me wonder, now that Levine’s health is sidelining him so often, who is going to be responsible for the long-term upkeep of musical standards. Guest conductors like Armiliato fly off at the end of a run, and Fabio Luisi’s new title of principal conductor still only makes him chief pinch-hitter. For four decades, Levine has overseen the orchestra’s planned evolution, cajoled well-upholstered egos into working a little harder, cultivated skills in one season that would bear fruit in the next, and deferred productions for three or four, or fifteen, years because he wanted to do them right. That’s what a music director does, and right now, the Met doesn’t have one. If this situation isn’t resolved soon, the result will be more mixed triumphs and half-deserved cheers.