OONY’s Star-Studded Concert Version of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena
’Twas a dark and stormy winter night, the snow drifts in front of Carnegie Hall melting under the lashes of pounding rain. But inside the hall 2,500 opera buffs basked in the warm, welcoming glow of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, one of his finest works, bristling with dramatic arias and ensembles suitable for world-class virtuoso singers.
“Anna Bolena” is Italian for Anne Boleyn, and Felice Romani’s libretto is drawn from a pair of stage plays about the misadventures of Henry VIII and his queens. If you want an account faithful to historical fact, seek it elsewhere. But it works superbly well as stage drama, as the king’s mounting dissatisfaction with Queen Anne and his desire to make Jane Seymour his new queen lead inexorably to Anne’s doom. But not before plot complications add to the thickening brew: Anna’s earlier love, Percy, has returned from abroad, his love for her still smoldering; Smeton, a young musician at court infatuated with Anna, unwittingly provides Henry with the excuse he needs to get rid of her; and conscience-wracked Jane Seymour’s (here, Giovanna Seymour) conflicting emotions fuel a series of dramatic confrontations. The opera ends with Anna and her loyalists led to their deaths at the Tower and a reluctant Giovanna crowned in her place. Unusual for early 19th-century librettos, plot complications are clear, the characters believable.
It also obviously inspired Donizetti to write some of his finest music, with magnificent ensembles, such as the grand sextet at the end of Act One, several duets crowned by the great Act Two duet between Anna and Seymour (itself a mini-opera in its range of narrative events and emotions), and a magnificent final scene that includes some of the juiciest soprano moments in bel canto opera. The Milan premiere in 1830 featured the superstars of the time, soprano Giuditta Pasta and tenor Giambattista Rubini. The thirtieth of his operas, Anna Bolena was a huge success for the composer, who at age 33 was close to averaging one opera for every year of his life. He actually bettered that, producing 65 operas before dying in 1848 at the age of 50. Anna Bolena’s popularity, like all but a handful of operas by Donizetti and his bel canto peers, ultimately faded until the postwar revival of the style triggered by Maria Callas’ successes. Her 1957 La Scala Anna Bolena was a sensation, and the live recording on EMI is still a first choice, but if you must have stereo, a Decca reissue starring Beverly Sills is a good alternative.
Anna Bolena is no longer a rarity, but it’s still on the fringes of the standard repertory, so the December 14 Carnegie Hall concert version was especially welcome, doubly so since it featured an outstanding cast of singers. The title role was taken by a fast-rising Bulgarian soprano, Krassimira Stoyanova, who was singing it for the first time in public. Ms. Stoyanova began her career as a soloist with the Sofia National Opera in 1995; since then she’s been a regular at the Vienna Staatsoper and she’ll sing Liu and Nedda at the Met next year. Even making allowances for her first Anna, I was mildly disappointed by the time intermission rolled around. Anna has plenty to do in Act One, but much of Stoyanova’s singing was generic, the voice nice enough, a bit on the bright side, with good range and nimble in the coloratura. At the same time I sensed little identification with the character, and a blandness that contrasted in the wrong way with Jennifer Larmore’s excellent Seymour. Either Stoyanova was ill-advised to take on such a demanding part or she was carefully pacing herself for the big moments of Act Two. I’m happy to report that it must have been the latter, for she was fully equal to the vocal and dramatic requirements of the most taxing moments of a taxing role. In Act Two her voice was even fresher than it had been; the coloratura, if anything, more fluid, the characterization etched more strongly. In the great closing scene, her legato singing was touching, limning Donizetti’s long lines with an emotion-soaked voice. We still were far from Callas territory, but — especially for a first-time role — Stoyanova gave ample evidence of justifying her growing reputation. Here’s a singer I’ll want to hear again, especially in her future Anna Bolenas, which can only improve with onstage repetition.
Her partner in the opera’s spotlight was the Giovanna Seymour, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, whose dazzling singing pretty much stole the show. She’s among the best of the remarkable breed of mezzo-sopranos currently singing their stage partners under the table, and her hall-filling power, tonal beauty, and attention to detail helped her create a fully rounded character worthy of our compassion. Since the Seymour of Romani and Donizetti’s opera is as conflicted as Anna is, much of the power of the opera derives from the fact that both rivals, Anna and Seymour, are sympathetic characters whose conflicts are as much internal as with each other. This was especially apparent in the great Act Two duet where Anna discovers that her trusted friend Seymour is her rival, flings horrible curses at her, and in the end comes to forgive her, fingering Henry as the cause of their dilemma. Here, both Larmore and Stoyanova sent sparks into the night with memorable singing.
Percy, Anna’s pre-Henry lover, was sung by Yegishe Manucharyan, who displayed a smallish lyric tenor whose top notes had the piercing zippiness we want in the role. But while his singing in the upper register was free and open, occasional notes in his midrange, especially on vowels, would disappear, losing volume and quality, a vocal hiccup in the musical line. But this is a minor flaw, something that shouldn’t be exaggerated given his many positive attributes. Henry was sung by James Morris, a Met Wotan, who demonstrated that careful handling over the years has left his instrument pretty much intact, resonant and colorful, ideal for projecting the King’s authority and his determination. Mezzo Kate Aldrich, in the pants role of Smeton, impressed with her opulent tone, stage presence, and enthusiastic singing.
Eve Queler conducted. She’s led the Opera Orchestra of New York throughout its 33 years of Carnegie Hall seasons and faithful fans honor her for more than just her podium work, which is usually, as in Anna Bolena, just serviceable. Her real value lies in her uncanny ability to spot important new singers and give them New York showcases for their talents long before the major houses, who tend to move at an elephantine pace in such matters, present them. Queler also finds operatic rarities major companies never stage, and gives veteran singers and stars opportunities to sing in those operas. So she’s done a lot for opera in New York, and deserves our gratitude even if her conducting per se is less than ideal. In Anna Bolena, Queler moved things along at a fairly brisk clip, helped by making substantial cuts (even so, this was a three hour-plus concert). The pickup orchestra played very well, with a solid ensemble sound and expertly played orchestral solos that drew attention to Donizetti’s felicitous wind writing. The chorus was a unique New Jersey-based group, Coro Lirico, which specializes in concert opera, and they filled their attenuated role well.
Still to come this OONY season at Carnegie: Verdi’s Il Corsaro on March 21 and La Gioconda with Aprile Millo and Marcello Giordani on April 20.
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