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Donizetti: Anna Bolena / Pido, Netrebko, Garanca, D'Arcangelo

Release Date: 11/01/2011 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 001620309  
Composer:  Gaetano Donizetti
Performer:  Ildebrando D'ArcangeloElina GarancaFrancesco MeliAnna Netrebko,   ... 
Conductor:  Evelino Pidò
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna State Opera ChorusVienna State Opera Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Back Order: Usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

DONIZETTI Anna Bolena Evelino Pidò, cond, Anna Netrebko ( Anna Bolena ); Elina Garan?a ( Giovanna Seymour ); Ildebrando d’Arcangelo ( Enrico VIII ); Francesco Meli ( Riccardo Percy ); Dan Paul Dumitrescu ( Lord Rochefort ); Elisabeth Kulman ( Smeaton Read more class="ARIAL12">); Peter Jelosits ( Sir Hervey ); Vienna St Op Cho & O DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B0016203-09 (2 DVDs: 194:00) Live: Vienna 04/2011

Donizetti’s British dramas do get bad press. Long, historically laughable vehicles for the obligatory mad scene, they do need a star to stop an (at least British) audience from giggling. A camp classic is Emilia di Liverpool (Donizetti had never been there, and consequently set that industrial shipping hub among mountains), and is for the British as preposterous as finding a bel canto opera called Rosalinda di Detroit . At the other end of the scale there is Donizetti’s first real hit, the 1833 Anna Bolena , and it really isn’t that bad a version of English history, mad scene apart; certainly it is far more accurate than HBO’s The Tudors . Felice Romani’s libretto is simple and to the point. Rumors circulate that King Henry VIII wishes to replace his wife, Anne Boleyn, with his new lover, Jane Seymour, Boleyn’s friend and confidante. The return of Boleyn’s former suitor, Percy, organized by her brother Rochford, and the infatuation of her pageboy, Smeaton, give Henry perfect grounds to accuse Anne of infidelity. She is executed, along with Percy, Rochford, and poor, lovestruck Smeaton. Donizetti takes more than three hours to convey this, but it is hard to deny the glorious quality of the copious sequences of long arias and cabalettas and sprawling ensembles, even if most of the second act consists of the chorus talking about how mad Anna is, before letting the audience judge for ourselves in her mad scene.

Since Maria Callas’s heavily cut version in 1957, this opera is no longer the obscurity it used to be, but stagings are still rare. It is overlong, with few of the principals off the stage for any amount of time, and, as many a Golden Age collector bemoans, where are today’s bel canto superstars? Deutsche Grammophon, the Met, and more recently the Vienna Staatsoper are placing their bets on Anna Netrebko. An inconsistently brilliant all-around package, Netrebko hasn’t always convinced me in bel canto , much of it sounding hastily learned, with a rather approximate way with coloratura. But maybe because Anna Bolena has those long, lyrical passages, I am rather impressed with her debut in the role, recorded this year.

What is notable on this DVD is how big her sound has become. Post baby, she has vocally (and physically) filled out, expanding that dark, opaque timbre of hers. She floats some pretty phenomenal pianissimo notes, and is happy to go up an octave from what’s written at the end of ensembles. I still don’t think her runs are anything to shout about, but she has better diction than Joan Sutherland, and cuts a pretty, carnal, and tempestuous figure on stage, if not entirely immune from stock gestures, like an outstretched arm in moments of anger. She is still every inch the glamorpuss in Luisa Spinatelli’s lavish, fabulous costumes (with prison no barrier to Anna wearing a very glam, shiny, purple number). The production, shockingly for Vienna, is utterly faithful and traditional; not an Armani suit, line of coke, or scene of choral group buggery is to be seen. Sets are minimalist, with real focus on costume design, giving Eric Génovèse’s production room to focus on character. Not that he doesn’t sometimes fall into the usual pitfalls of Donizetti dramas, not knowing quite what to do with people during those long orchestral passages. The first meeting between Anna and her brother is particularly botched, and generally all the chorus is allowed to do is move around in picturesque blocks.

Still, the showdown between Anna and Giovanna is brilliant, a catty splatter of estrogen between Netrebko’s buxom brunette and Elina Garan?a’s icy, luminous blonde. Looks aside, Garan?a is the finest Seymour I’ve come across, her luscious, smooth mezzo soaring above those accompaniments beautifully, and she colors and shapes a line like the great names of the past. A decent actress, too, capturing Jane’s brittle mix of ambition and guilt very well. Netrebko is a very fine lead, but I won’t be the only one siding with Henry’s decision. Elisabeth Kulman is a sweet, nimble Smeaton, although she ought maybe to ditch her lousy guitar miming to the pit’s harp.

The men are not quite in the same league. Francesco Meli has the right, bright timbre, and can sing very softly (such as in his gorgeous act II appeal to Enrico and Anna, “Fin dall’età più tenera”), but he gets edgy under pressure, and is a rather generalized actor. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s rather grainy, restrained bass underwhelms in the theater, but here at least, like Netrebko’s voice, it has filled out a little (favorable microphone placement, perhaps?), and his dashing looks make a very predatory, masculine king (shades of The Tudors ?), which works. Dan Paul Dumitrescu makes little of Rochefort, which is a shame, as he can be very interesting when played as an incestuous little scuzzball, pimping out his famous sister to her ex-lover.

So how does this compare to the classic audio Bolenas ? The Beverley Sills set, now on DG, is complete, but is suffocated by Julius Rudel’s dull conducting and Paul Plishka’s wobbly King; the Callas set is messy but exciting, and terrifically led by Gavazzeni, but more than an hour of music, including the overture, is cut. A couple of annoying cuts aside, I tend to favor a live New York set from 1966 on Gala with Elena Souliotis outsinging Callas and nearly swallowing up her tenor, an unknown called Plácido Domingo. Marilyn Horne is her rival and Janet Baker, of all people, turns up as Smeaton. It’s conducted with real fury by Horne’s then-husband, Henry Lewis.

Compared to that, this DVD is possibly too polished. The Vienna forces play exquisitely for Evelino Pidò, but a little more edge and woodwind astringency in a delicate score like this wouldn’t go amiss. Otherwise I can’t think of a better bel canto conductor than Pidò, keeping the energy up in this baggy score without losing detail or being too yielding to his stars.

This is definitely the first choice on DVD, although that’s not hard given the competition: a past-it Joan Sutherland from Toronto in 1984 (interesting for a young Ben Heppner scampering on and off as Hervey) and a rather low-rent one on Dynamic. Time has prevented me from checking with a score to see if this new version is utterly complete, but I can’t think of a bar that’s missing. It is certainly good to have the prison duet, and (more suitable for a knockabout opera buffa , maybe) the overture is included, unlike in some versions. Sound is very full-bodied, and picture is as good as the rather dark, minimalist staging will allow. It is good to see Brian Large’s name here, a more reliable hallmark of quality than the yellow label is now, and his video direction is logical, discreet, and trusting of singers to handle close-ups in reaction to what other characters are doing. Deutsche Grammophon’s extras are pitiful: Garan?a introducing each act (Wow! Amaze all your friends!), and a brief booklet note on how great Netrebko is.

FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield
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Works on This Recording

Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti
Performer:  Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Bass), Elina Garanca (Mezzo Soprano), Francesco Meli (Tenor),
Anna Netrebko (Soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (Mezzo-soprano)
Conductor:  Evelino Pidò
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna State Opera Chorus,  Vienna State Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; Italy 

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