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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 8, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 28
Netrebko shines in VSO's Anna Bolena
Arts & Entertainment
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Netrebko shines in VSO's Anna Bolena

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

DONIZETTI: ANNA BOLENA
VIENNA STATE OPERA
(Deutsche Grammophon Blu-ray)


This Blu-ray disc of Gaetano Donizetti's early opera Anna Bolena from the Vienna State Opera was obviously prepared with care. The sound, while not quite state-of-the-art, is quite good, and the picture could hardly be better for this format. The camera editing includes some really wonderful angles, catching far more of the action and character emotions than any seat in the auditorium could provide. The only 'extra,' however, is four minutes of mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca reading in German a bland synopsis of the action. (The series from the Met in HD has spoiled us with sometimes delightful interviews and other behind-the-scenes documentaries during the intermissions.) The overall high quality of the disc and the performance led me to expect more.

I'm left wondering why I was unmoved by the show as a whole. Only a few isolated moments really excited me. The production is strictly traditional, with thankfully no trace of a director's hand taking you away from what the composer might have intended. While the sets are fairly basic, the costumes are drop-dead gorgeous, especially for King Henry VIII. And the cast, with two exceptions, is nearly ideal. So, what's the problem?

I think the fault lies with the composer. Too much of the music seems uninspired, written according to formula rather than from genius. Granted, the singers are given plenty of opportunities to show off, and the stars do that with better-than-average attempts at conveying feelings. But most of the music is bland, despite a story line that is pretty dramatic. Only in Anna's final scenes (her 'mad' scene and her death aria) does Donizetti seem to rouse himself to some lovely inspired writing. Perhaps the composer was just beginning to find his genius in this, his first truly successful opera.

Russian soprano Anna Netrebko meets the composer head-on in those final scenes, giving us some extraordinarily lovely soft singing and secure, beautiful top notes. Throughout the opera she is dramatically involved while pouring out gorgeous tone in long, legato lines. Too bad her evil husband, basso Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, couldn't take guidance from her. Instead, he sings almost every note at full volume, pushing his voice to a constantly menacing tone. I would love to know what his impressive voice sounds like when singing softly or even medium-loud. But if you want a darkly sexy, abusive King Henry VIII, you need look no farther than him; too bad he's so boring in all other aspects.

As Anna's closest friend, mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca is gorgeous and vocally in command, but I've seen her more involved elsewhere. Perhaps she too found the music a little uninspired. As Anna's ex-lover, before she gave herself to the King, tenor Francesco Meli sings with solid technique and works hard to vary his sound with welcome use of soft singing to contrast the more bombastic moments. But I find him a boring artist, lacking in a temperament that might make his singing exciting.

In contrast, mezzo Elisabeth Kulman is sheer perfection in all ways. In the 'trouser' role of court musician, she/he has the temperament that Meli lacks. She clearly loves every minute she's on stage, giving a dramatic delivery that exudes intelligence and passion. The camera wisely catches moments of her involvement even when she is not the center of the action. Her voice is strong and beautiful from top to bottom and flows forth with smart musicianship.

Conductor Evelino Pid? keeps everything lively and musical, directing the Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera with confident command. Most everything about this disc is so excellent that I'm am still hard-pressed to say exactly why it doesn't create more excitement. I recently compared this performance to the one Netrebko subsequently sang in 2012 in the Live from the Met in HD (with a different cast and production), and I prefer this Vienna cast (although the Met had a much better tenor in Stephen Costello).

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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