Notes and Editorial Reviews
For once, the word 'phenomenal' can be used as something more than a loose superlative.
Which should come first, Anna Bolena or Anna? Perhaps the latter, for this is an opera that depends to an unusual extent on its principal singer. In this respect it resembles Norma, and indeed the same great soprano sang in the first performance of both works. There are other points of comparison (such as the heroine's relationship with the mezzo-soprano), but the differences have to be sufficiently marked to account for the far greater success of Dame Joan Sutherland in the one role than the other. Norma needs steel in the tone and a range of expressiveness that Sutherland has never quite commanded, so that it was not simply the
effects of age upon the then 58year-old singer's voice that limited the satisfaction of her second and recently released recording of Norma (Decca 414 476-IDH3; CD 414,476-2131-13, 4/88). In Anna Bolena she has a role much better suited to her; a part with a gentler vocal idiom yet giving ample opportunity for the exercise of her special accomplishments, and one where the prevailing dramatic mood is of suffering, relieved by glimmers of hope and flashes of noble resolution.
At the age of 60 when the recording was made (1987), Sutherland gives a performance that is as moving in the preservation of purely vocal resources as in the simple conviction of its dramatic portrayal. For once, the word 'phenomenal' can be used as something more than a loose superlative. It's true that the beat which the microphone has picked up so unflatteringly for several years is still a presence; true also that the upper notes have lost something of their former amplitude and ease. Transposition has become necessary or advisable in the final scene, so that we can carry away with us a last triumphant high D fiat. But such limi tations affect the general achievement much less severely here than they have done in other 'lateperiod' recordings. The special quality of the voice shows up particularly well in the duets with Percy and Giovanna (Jane Seymour). The gifted singers at her side are in their youthful prime, but its purity of well-rounded tone that still gives to Sutherland's voice a golden glow by comparison with which the others are of less precious metal altogether. The sound has thickened somewhat, especially in the lower register, but the cabalettas (whether in the triplets and gruppelli of the first or the scales and trills of the finale) show her agility and technical brilliance to have survived virtually unimpaired. Emotionally the performance is at its finest in moments of pleading ("Ah. .. per pietà del mio spavento"), and occasionally a phrase lodges in the memory ("Un serto ebb'io di spine"). If not rich in subtlety, it is warm in unaffected pathos.
The Sutherland/Bonynge opera recordings have long been known for giving the younger generation a chance to fly high. This one introduces two useful mezzos: Susanne Mentzer makes a freshly vibrant, unforced and sympathetic Giovanna, and Bernadette Manca di Nissa an appropriately deeper-toned Smeton, giving a fine account of the graceful Cavatina, and shaping an expressive vocal line in the cabaletta that follows. Jerry Hadley (who like Mentzer has sung the opera with Sutherland on stage in Houston) has fervour and firmness, as well as a generous store of ringing high notes; the tone-quality sounds to me to be less than pure silver, a little more surfacy than I had expected. Ramey is magnificent. His voice seems fuller than ever, the panache of his florid work that of a master. His somewhat stern vocal-character is apt enough here, and his denunciation of the 'guilty couple' ("Coppia real") has a dramatic thrust worthy of Chaliapin himself.
As the recording stands alone in the catalogue at present, comparisons will be of use only to readers who have one of the earlier versions and wonder whether to buy another. The Suliotis/Varviso recording (Decca SET446/9, 11/70—nla) is textually incomplete, and the Sills/Rude] (EMI SLS878, 8/74—nla) suffers from over-amplification of the thin, often unsteady voice of its heroine (who nevertheless has moments of startling dramatic vividness). With the greater clarity of recorded sound (compare the rapid openingfigure in the Overture), Bonynge shows once again his skill in bringing out the rhythmic vitality of such a score as this, and the Welsh National forces emerge once more with high credit.
And Anna Bolena, at last? It was Donizetti's 35th opera and his first resounding success. Until the finale, with the suggestions of Home, sweet home and (fleetingly) the Schubert F minor Fantasia, the melodies are not immediately striking or memorable as in Lucia di Lammermoor. But it has considerable dramatic power, with moments where the score takes an unexpected plunge into troubled waters. There is harmonic and orchestral interest, and it was no doubt the well-proportioned structure that encouraged Mazzini to describe it as "approaching epic poetry in music". Given a fine performance, such as this, it retains much of its power.
-- Gramophone [7/1988]
review of original release, Decca 421096
Works on This Recording
Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti
Samuel Ramey (Bass),
Jerry Hadley (Tenor),
Susanne Mentzer (Mezzo Soprano),
Giorgio Surian (Bass),
Bernadette Manca di Nissa (Mezzo Soprano),
Ernesto Gavazzi (Tenor),
Dame Joan Sutherland (Soprano)
Welsh National Opera Chorus,
Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Written: 1830; Italy
Date of Recording: 02/1987
Venue: Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
Length: 193 Minutes 0 Secs.
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