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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848)
Anna Bolena (1830)
(soprano) – Anna Bolena; Samuel Ramey (bass) – Enrico
VIII; Jerry Hadley (tenor) – Lord Riccardo Percy; Susanne
Mentzer (mezzo) – Giovanna Seymour; Bernadette Manca di
Nissa (contralto) – Smeton; Giorgio Surian (bass) – Lord
Rochefort; Ernesto Gavazzi (tenor) – Sir Hervey;
Orchestra and Chorus of the Welsh National Opera/Richard
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, February 1987
DECCA CLASSIC OPERA
475 7910 [62:35 + 56:53 + 73:32]
Anna Bolena was Donizetti’s 33rd opera – or
thereabouts, depending how one counts. He made revisions
of some of his works, in some cases quite far-reaching. It
was also his real break-through and the in which he created
a style of his own, distancing himself from the influence
of Rossini and, with its large-scale structure where musical
numbers moved more or less seamlessly into one another, thus
also being of importance in the development of the young
Verdi. Contributing to the success was in no small degree
Felice Romani’s libretto which, though historically mostly
incorrect, is well constructed and dramatic. In short the
plot is as follows:
King Henry VIII (Enrico) is in love with Jane Seymour (Giovanna) and
accuses his wife Anne Boleyn of adultery to be able to marry
Jane. Richard, Lord Percy (Riccardo), who is living in exile,
is brought home to give evidence against Anne; they were
lovers once and he still loves her. The King finally accuses
Anne of having a love affair with Smeton, the page. In act
2 Smeton admits, under torture, the love story. Anne denies
it but admits that she once loved Percy. Anne is sentenced
to death and goes mad. Smeton declares that his accusations
of her unfaithfulness were false, but this changes nothing.
The execution is to be carried through.
The opera was very successful and was played for many years but towards
the later part of the 19th century it disappeared
and was not revived until 1957 when Maria Callas had one
of her greatest successes in the title role at La Scala.
Since then it has been performed by several great sopranos
and there are a number of recordings. Callas never recorded
it commercially – though she sings the final scene on her
recital “Mad Scenes” and there is a live recording from La
Scala under Gavazzeni with Rossi-Lemeni as Enrico and Simionato
as Giovanna. Elena Suliotis recorded it for Decca around
1970 and Beverly Sills set it down a couple of years later.
On Nightingale Edita Gruberova recorded the opera in 1995.
The recording under consideration was released in 1988 and
I bought it on LPs, having read a very positive review in Gramophone.
I was very disappointed and played it through once, whereupon
it has collected dust. I saw this CD release as an opportunity
to reassess it and I have to admit that I was in a more benevolent
mood having finished my listening sessions, but I still have
some serious reservations.
So what was it that wasn’t to my taste? Certainly not the quality
of the recording – on the contrary James Lock, Colin Moorfoot
and John Pellowe who engineered the sessions, have produced
a vivid sound which gives full due to the impressive orchestral
writing – this is indeed Donizetti at his grandest with the
orchestral pallet perfectly enhancing the varying dramatic
situations. The playing and singing of the Welsh National
Opera forces is also beyond reproach and was deeply impressed
by the angelic singing of the ladies of the chorus that precedes
the tragic final scene. Richard Bonynge can be an uneven
conductor but here in repertoire that is close to his heart
I find nothing to fault.
Aha, so it must be the singers! Well, to start from the bottom
of the cast-list I was very impressed by Ernesto Gavazzi
Sir Hervey. He sports a fine ringing tenor of considerable
size and he has dramatic insights. He gives face to his character.
Giorgio Surian has a somewhat gritty and heavy voice but
he too infuses life in his character and makes an expressive
Lord Rochefort. Bernadette Manca di Nissa was quite new at
the time but her fruity contralto was a pleasant surprise
and she sings Smeton’s big solo scene in act 1 scene 3 (CD2
tr. 1-2) confidently. Another newcomer was Susanne Mentzer
and her interpretation of Giovanna, which is a big role,
almost on a par with the title role, is so accomplished,
so technically superb and sung with such glow and beauty
of tone that she almost steals the whole show. At her first
entrance she sounds a bit uneasy but then she only gets better
and better and crowns the performance with a virtuoso reading
of Ah! pensate che rivolti (CD3 tr. 8). Jerry Hadley,
also quite early in his career, makes a likeable Percy. His
attractive, lean, youthful voice is ideally attuned to the
role. I have always liked his naturalness and he impresses
more through his nuanced phrasing and lyrical pianissimos – listen
to his last act aria (CD3 tr. 10). He also tosses off some
ringing top notes in the cabaletta but there he wants more
than he can produce and comes close to barking.
As Enrico Samuel Ramey is superb, in fact of all the recordings
I have heard him in this is arguably his greatest assumption.
He is in superb voice, technically more accomplished than
any other bass since Pol Plançon, powerful and more expressive
and vivid as an actor than ever before and after. Anna
pure amor m’offria (CD1 ca 4 minutes into tr. 9) is as
good evidence as any of his involvement.
OK, this leaves the top name in the list, but she is the star!
Indeed she is and the main reason why I wanted this set and
that Gramophone review led me to believe that she
was as in her golden days, especially since I had heard her
in glorious shape in a concert performance of I puritani a
year earlier, at about the time this recording was made.
I was tremendously disappointed back in 1988, I wanted to
be as unprejudiced as possible when rehearing her but I got
the same mental slap in the face when she appeared. It is
that beat that disfigures the line, not only at forte and
above the stave but even more pronounced in the mid-register
and when singing softly. It is also that occluded tone, as
if she has filled her mouth cavity with wads of cotton and
it is this lethargic atmosphere that permeates almost all
her singing. It is true that the role is lethargic in itself
and the music for the queen is somnambulist but Ms Sutherland
has sung other roles in this mould with much more life. There
is also very little of an interpretation, it is monotonous.
I also get a feeling that she has to struggle with every
phrase. True, the basic quality of the voice is mainly smooth
and unscratched and she does hit the highest notes
plumb in the middle with impressive ring and momentarily
she can sound as in the great days of old, as in the act
1 finale. Luckily the big final scene with her great aria
and that touching section Cielo, a’ miei lunghi spasimi (Heaven
grant me respite at last) (CD3 tr. 16), based on Home,
sweet home, is better than I had feared and here she
shows that her trill is just as phenomenal as before but
still it feels so sad that she made this recording so late
in her career.
So is this another case of a Hamlet without the prince?
No, not quite. As I have tried to point out there is so much
excellence on display in this recording and Anna Bolena’s
part is so much smaller than Hamlet’s. At mid-price, with
excellent documentation and libretto plus English translation
this is still a recommendable proposition and Joan Sutherland,
for all the shortcomings I have reluctantly listed, can be
quite touching and in the final scene Anna’s precarious mental
state is actually mirrored in the frailty of the singing.
But for the best of two worlds get Maria Callas’ “Mad Scenes” to
have at hand as a corrective.
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