August 20, 2014
Anna Bolena, a travesty of bel canto values
For the Herald
Buenos Aires Lírica brings a long-awaited revival of Donizetti’s opera to wretched results
Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, composed when he was 33, was already his 32nd opera. And it became his first great success, as well as starting the trilogy of British Queens, continued with Maria Stuarda and ending with Roberto Devereux. The fading of Donizetti’s star during the “verismo” years was followed after WWII with a revival of many unduly forgotten titles. For A.B., the triumph of Callas and Simionato in 1957 with Gavazzeni’s conducting and Visconti’s producing was instrumental in providing a model for future revivals. Later Callas marvelously recorded the final scene, a masterpiece.
By the time it arrived at the Colón in 1970, I was thoroughly familiar with the music, and I enjoyed it hugely in the beautiful production of Margherita Wallmann with Nicola Benois’ fantastic stage designs powerfully evoking the times of Henry VIII. And the cast was important, with Elena Suliotis, Fiorenza Cossotto, Gianni Raimondi and Ivo Vincò, plus the thorough conducting of Oliviero De Fabritiis. Still later the vinyls of the complete A.B. were edited here, with Beverly Sills, Shirley Verrett, Stuart Burrows and Paul Plishka, conducted by Julius Rudel. I also had the pleasure of seeing it at the now-disappeared New York City Opera, with Olivia Stapp and no less than Samuel Ramey as Henry.
The Colón didn’t return to the piece — in fact, it has miserably neglected the Donizettian repertoire since then. But about eight years ago, there was a decent production presented elsewhere by Adelaida Negri where the style was respected both vocally and stagewise. Negri’s voice had its problems; however, the lady looked regal and she sang with true understanding.
All this is by way of giving a background to the certainly awaited revival by Buenos Aires Lírica (BAL) at the Avenida, starting its season. The opera has a libretto by the celebrated Felice Romani, based on Enrico VIII ossia Anna Bolena, by Ippolito Pindemonte, and Anna Bolena by Alessandro Pepoli: two Italian sources for an English historical libretto. But in fact, what we have leaves aside the political aspects to concentrate on an alcove plot: quite simply, Henry has grown tired of Anne Boleyn and now covets Jane (Giovanna) Seymour, who will become his third queen after Anne’s decapitation. She is falsely accused of adultery with an old flame, Percy; and Romani adds a subplot with the page Smeton caught red-handed with Anne’s portrait in his (her, for it is a mezzo trouser role) hands.
The music is melodious and acquires true dimension in the great Anne-Jane duet and in the ample final scene. Done with dignity and taste, it can provide a fine night at the opera. Alas, this wasn’t the case. The distortion of bel canto values by the producer Pablo Maritano was so deep that the dramatic or tragic instances became ridiculous, and it fatally affected even the considerable quality of singing of the three female singers. Indeed, Anne smirked her way almost to the last minute, Jane was endowed with what looked like Minnie Mouse ears and Smeton seemed attacked by delirium tremens.
The men, with the exception of Lord Rochefort (Anne’s brother) fared much worse. Henry looked like a Mafia don in absurd white costume, and although the Henry of that time wasn’t yet obese, he certainly wasn’t thin. And poor Percy, certainly not helped by his short stature, was so horribly marked by the producer that his acting seemed that of a spastic, provoking suppressed mirth in the spectator in all the most dramatic moments.
Maritano has explained in an interview that his view of the piece is violent and from the start he portrays Henry has a sadistic blackguard of unbridled lascivious instincts; Jane is certainly impressed by his animal side and in the last instance her remorse gives way before her sensuality and the offered pomp and power. Of course, Henry was a complex man and he had drastic methods of doing things, but the times of constitutional monarchy are still far off during his reign; he was ruthless but also a man of refined tastes, who composed and spoke good French. Maritano certainly gave instructions to his team and Sofia di Nunzio’s incredible accoutrements for the King and for Percy aren’t completely her fault. The producer even brought photographers to close one of the scenes. The scarce stage designs of Andrea Mercado give little ambience to the action. The whole thing lacks taste, sense of drama and I would even say knowledge of time and place. The nadir was the scene of a hung stag dripping blood whilst Anne sang along.
The good things were the singing as such (forget the drama) of Macarena Valenzuela, certainly a fine voice, but don’t compare with Callas or Sills! Florencia Machado was quite intense as Jane, the best artist of the night. The debut of Luciana Mancini (she is Chilean) as Smeton showed a well-timbred voice skilfully used. The men were another story. Except Walter Schwarz as a fluidly sung Rochefort, I got little pleasure musically either from Christian Peregrino (a big bass voice but with woolly intonation) or from Santiago Ballerini, where only his facility to reach high notes was a plus; I heard poorly-managed phrasing and a timbre with little beauty.
Further good points were the conducting of Rodolfo Fischer and the correct singing of the choir (Juan Casasbellas) but they couldn’t save the night.