Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Anna Bolena - Opera Seria in two acts (1830)
Enrico, Henry the Eighth of England - Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (bass); Anna Bolena, his second wife - Anna Netrebko (soprano); Giovanna Seymour, Henry’s mistress - Elina Garanca (mezzo); Lord Riccardo Percy, Anna’s former lover - Francesco Meli (tenor); Lord Rochefort, his friend and Anna’s brother - Dan Paul Dumitrescu (baritone); Smeton, a page - Elisabeth Kulmann (mezzo); Sir Hervey, court official - Peter Jelosits
Orchestra and Chorus of the Wiener Staatsoper/Evelino Pidò
Stage directior: Eric Génovese; Set designers: Jaques Gabel and Claire Sternberg; Costume designs: by Luisa Couderc
rec. live, April 2011, Wiener Staatsoper
Picture format: NTSC 16:9; Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.0; Region code: 0
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD 073 4725 193:00 + 4:00 bonus]

With Anna Bolena Donizetti hit the big time. It was his thirty-first opera. He had enjoyed some success with Zoraida Di Granata (see review) first performed at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, in January 1822. It had helped mark Donizetti out as one of the young Italian opera composers who would vie to assume Rossini’s crown. At this stage the grand maestro had decamped to the better musical standards in Paris.
As always in Italy at that period there was frequent political manoeuvring in the field of opera presentation with status and money the names of the game. In May 1830, the Duke of Litta and two rich associates formed a Society to sponsor opera at La Scala whose franchise was due for renewal. They were concerned to raise the musical standards that had seen Rossini, Meyerbeer and others decamp to Paris. They engaged several of the leading singers of the day including Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Rubini. Donizetti and Bellini, whom they considered to be the two best active Italian composers, were each contracted to write an opera for the season to a libretto set by the renowned Romani, widely recognised as the best in the business. However, Litta and his associates failed to secure La Scala for their plans, which were instead realised at the Teatro Carcano.
The Duke and his colleagues chose well as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena was premiered to acclaim on 26 December 1830, the opening of the Carnival Season. After the censors forced a change of subject on Bellini, even after he had already composed at least five scenes, his proposed opera was put back to 6 March 1831 when La Sonnambula too enjoyed a significant success. Anna Bolena was soon staged throughout Italy, reaching London in July 1831 and Paris in the September, it being the first of Donizetti’s operas to be performed there. The story concerns the famous roving eye of England’s Henry VIII. Tiring of his wife Anna (Ann Boleyn), Henry has turned his attentions to her Lady in Waiting, Giovanna (Jane Seymour). Henry summons Riccardo Percy back from exile. Percy had once been betrothed to Anna and Henry hopes to set him up and accuse Anna of infidelity. The page Smeaton, a travesti role, is also in love with Anna and circumstances conspire to provide Enrico with an excuse to imprison all three despite their being innocent. After a rigged trial all three are condemned to death. In a mad scene made famous by Callas in the 1950s, Anna is taken to the executioner’s block as the crowd proclaim their new queen.
Anna Bolena seems to have been the bel canto flavour of the year in 2011 with this production in Vienna, a near contemporaneous one in Barcelona and receiving its Metropolitan Opera, New York, debut on 26 September. The Met production was one of the first of the season, on 15 October 2011 to be transmitted live to cinemas worldwide. Was it that opera house intendants had re-discovered bel canto? Rather it is that a new generation of divas and divos has emerged who can sing the music as it was conceived and are also prepared to learn a new work and influence theatres to present it. Vienna, for the first - their first ever - Anna Bolena, and for the first time on their stage together, got two of the greatest of the day in Anna Netrebko in the eponymous role and Elina Garanca, an admired Carmen, as Giovanna Seymour. Garanca featured alongside veteran bel canto soprano Edita Gruberová in Barcelona and, if rumour is right, should have featured in the Metropolitan Opera production alongside Netrebko, but pregnancy intervened.
In this production with relatively simple but effective sets and opulent period costumes, the two ladies mentioned are in spectacular form as singers and interpreters. I first came to be aware of Anna Netrebko in recorded performances of La Traviata in Willi Decker’s updated setting at Salzburg in 2005 (see review). Her outstanding histrionic performance as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani from the Met in 2007 (see review) also made its mark. Post her pregnancy I was at a loss to accept her vocal change when I heard her performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater (see review). Her voice had changed significantly to my ears and had become larger with a significant loss of flexibility. By the time I heard her at the cinema transmission of Anna Bolena it was obvious that vocal matters had settled down. If she had lost that sylph-like figure of her 2005 Violetta, and a little of her coloratura flexibility, her more womanly outline was also reflected in her voice which was distinctly fuller, warmer and more dramatic. She presented a most formidable and near ideal Anna Bolena. These qualities are evident in this Vienna performance where she gives a demonstration of characterisation and bel canto vocal virtuosity that is second to none, Callas included. Add her usual committed acting and this is as good as it gets, or is likely to get from any rival in the near future. Her qualities as a singing actress are evident as early as the act one trio scena and cavatina alongside the Giovanna of Elina Garanca and the Smeaton of Elisabeth Kulmann (DVD 1 CHs.5-8). She reaches an apogee of achievement in the long closing scene of act two as Anna Bolena, in derangement, realises why her tears flow and the intended outcome for her. This Anna Bolena crawls forward to her death by what looks more like a guillotine than an axe block; maybe the producer mixed up the date of composition with the setting of the work (DVD 2 CHs. 19-23).
Having expanded extensive complimentary adjectives on Netrebko’s Anna, I have to find different, but equally eulogistic ones to describe Elina Garanca’s singing and interpretation of Giovanna Seymour. First of all, her acted portrayal in the wide variety of emotional situations that the role demands is outstanding. Her singing, by its diction, expression, smooth legato, wide range and overall involvement is a match for Anna Netrebko. Garanca has an appealing velvety patina to her voice whilst also having a very wide, unforced but focused range. The variety of her singing in the diverse emotional situations of her pursuit by Enrico (DVD 1 Chs.9-12), confession to Anna (DVD 2 Chs.2-6) and fears over being the cause of Anna’s death (CHs. 11-12) are perfect exemplars. As with her soprano colleague, Garanca’s is a consummate interpretation by an artist at the top of her game.
If none of the rest of the cast quite reaches the standards set by this Anna and Giovanna, none lets the side down. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo is a tall handsome and seductive Enrico whose smooth singing only lacks a little lower extension to his burnished tone. His acted interpretation is notable. As Smeaton, Elisabeth Kulmann, not long ago a soprano, sings smoothly and acts well, only needing to walk more like a man and less like a woman ((DVD 1 CHs.20-21). Francesco Meli as Percy, sometime betrothed of Anna, is a little strained at the very top of his voice otherwise he sings with flexibility and pleasant lyric tone. Hardly the most becoming visually, Dan Paul Dumitrescu is a convincing Rochefort with good variety of tonal colour allied to vocal strength and good expression. In the pit Evelino Pidò adds to his reputation in this music with a well-paced and phrased interpretation.
Robert J Farr

No lover of Donizetti’s operas should do without this outstanding performance.