Anna Bolena | Edita Gruberova
Giovanna Seymour | Sonia Ganassi
Enrico VIII | Riccardo Zanellato
Lord Percy | José Bros
Smeton | Hagar Shavit
Lord Rochefort | Daniel Kotlinski
Hervey | Andrew Lepri Meyer
Conductor | Pietro Rizzi
Anna Bolena is very much fresh in the minds of the Viennese, but beyond Anna Netrebko’s spellbinding performance the opera’s 2011 outing at the Wiener Staatsoper did not move me much. Further beyond that is my general problem of failing to square, pace Gossett and artistic maturity, a composer who takes his historical narrative so very seriously with the formulaic vapidity of the music inspired by it. The seeds of high tragedy are there in some musical sense but banalities win out time after time, even when the artistic whole, with the nobly-borne fate of a self-ensnared victim at its centre, aspires to something considerably grander than melodrama.
The piece’s promise and shortcomings can add up to a disappointingly uneven experience: in José Bros, Edita Gruberova has found a Percy who brings genuine tension to the Henry-Boleyn-Seymour triangle, revealing a skilfully crafted dramatic arc that any performance would ideally not be without; while at the end of the opera, equanimity gives way to Anna’s reasoning that in dying she might as well die a martyr, prompting some nostalgic musing over her wedding to Henry that rings hollow. Breaking the reverie, a sudden angst-ridden recollection of Percy – at which the chorus haughtily tuts – sounds less the stuff of continuing internal conflict than the unoiled cogs of plot mechanics grinding redundantly onwards. At the point when this very human drama should reach its height, bathos is snatched from the jaws of poignancy.
But it was the opera’s strengths, more fully realized in concert than the Staatsoper’s staging, which dominated this performance, beginning with Edita Gruberova, who was never less than generous with the artistry that can go some way to redeeming Donizetti’s musical impoverishment. What she lost by being less firmly committed to the character than Netrebko – aside from awesomely regal bearing and wounded pride – was entirely to the music’s gain, outstripping the remarkable technical facility that she preserves midway through the fifth decade of her career. It has been my luck always to catch Gruberova at her best and though the E flat she pulled out at the very end curdled, top notes were otherwise impressive, tuning clean and coloratura agile, and familiar mannerisms limited to a handful of places. Only ‘Come innocente giovine’ was characterized by the fermatas she can be fond of floating with ethereal pianissimo, while the disembodied, asthmatic whisper she produces nowadays in lieu of chest notes proved oddly effective, with Anna’s low-lying parts bottoming out in a sinister Darth Vader cameo. Altogether this performance was more memorable however for Gruberova’s insightful balancing of intensity and expressivity, exemplified in the tender yet defiant manner she sealed her fate with Percy and, imparting credibility to the ending, bitterness couched in vulnerability.
Certain Viennese critics have heaped praise on Gruberova at the expense of José Bros, who cracked the climactic high notes of his big aria, and more generally sounded pinched in the upper reaches unless ascending by step, when his top notes rang out with greater squillo. His tone and vocal style are rather more oriented towards nasality than his voice’s naturally bright core, though every phrase dripped with italianità and his musicality closely complemented Gruberova’s. His ‘Vivi tu, te ne scongiuro’ in particular was a stand-out bit of ardent singing underpinned by sensitivity and expressive legato. Sonia Ganassi sang with fierce conviction and brought almost as much interest to the drama, with her Seymour an insufferably pushy schemer who experiences an apparently sincere change of heart just as she becomes powerless to intervene. The elasticity she showed when singing with Gruberova might however have come through more. Riccardo Zanaletto’s Enrico, a blunt autocrat though never stereotypically so, was sung with about enough pitch to avoid gruffness but phrased a tad boringly. Hagar Sharvit had passaggio problems negotiating Smeton but otherwise her character’s wretchedness aroused sympathy rather than indifference.
The band that gathers for this Munich-based concert promoter under the name ‘Münchener Opernorchester’ put in a spirited and well-rehearsed performance under the baton of Pietro Rizzo, with vividly characterful playing from the solo winds in particular. Missing heft in the bass did Donizettian harmonic syntax the great favour of concealing to some extent its repetitive dependence on tonic, dominant and subdominant axes. The Münchener Opernchor were both as limited in number and exemplary as the Arnold Schoenberg Chor.
Though marketed as such this Anna Bolena never felt like a vehicle for Edita Gruberova but rather a true ensemble effort with great musical insight and clarity of dramatic purpose.
Image credit from the 2012 Japan Gastspiel: Michael Pöhn / Wiener Staatsoper