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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848)
Anna Bolena (1830)
Joan Sutherland (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 Bonynge
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 as 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.
Göran Forsling


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