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Donizetti : Anna Bolena

Florencia, 2012 (Audio)

Director: Roberto Abbado

  • Sonia Ganassi
  • Mariella Devia
  • Shalva Mukeria
  • Roberto Scandiuzzi
  • Jose Maria lo Monaco

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    “Two women making use of the bed to get to the throne and a man making use of the throne to get to the bed”: this is Graham Vick’s conception of Anna Bolena in his own words.
    In the same interview, the British stage director, creator of this production of Gaetano Donizetti’s masterpiece that originated in Verona in 2007 and was also acclaimed in Palermo and Trieste before landing at the Teatro Comunale of Florence, continues by stating that his Anna is neither the innocent Romantic heroine unjustly sentenced to death nor a stylized queen cloaked in a tragic and dignified pride, but rather a woman of flesh and blood that has sold her soul to become a queen, and that in the course of the opera must come to terms with her own conscience. The wintry imagery that often returns in his mise-en-scène is a reflection of the desolation of Anna’s heart and soul.

    The content of the drama is anticipated in the overture. Though as a rule I am against it, there are cases where staging overtures may work, and this was clearly one of them. The king’s legendary six wives, all dressed with the same night gown but recognizable by some symbolic details (for example, a rosary for Catherine of Aragon), or their gait reflecting a particular state of mind (and perhaps here Vick assumes a knowledge of British history that most Italians do not have) parade one after the other as a physical representation of the king’s sentimental fickleness and cruelty. The long platform has the shape of a cross, and turns around according to the dramatic needs. The abovementioned canopy bed - around which most of the action of the characters takes place -is almost always to the fore. The hunting scene, dominated by two huge horses on which the queen and king ride, is immersed in a winter landscape of great visual impact. The “ice” theme will return in the final scene, where the king and his new wife appear like frosty ghosts behind a cracked glass wall, a metaphor of a destroyed existence.

    Perhaps at times Graham Vick may be a bit ham-handed and obvious: Anna sings “un serto io volli e un serto ebb’io di spine”, and the moon turns into a bloody crown of thorns; a monumental blindfolded head stands for the blind judgement of the tribunal. Right before the final scene the snow becomes red (blood, of course) and the wives don mourning gowns.

    The “mad scene” was extremely effective and convincing: Anna, clutching her long hair (that has been cut in preparation for her beheading) into her hands, suggests in her reminiscence of the past a self-mutilation and fetishism.

    Paul Brown’s costumes fit Vick’s conception like a glove. Anna’s predominant colour was a frosty metallic grey, Seymour’s an intense crimson, while Enrico was mostly characterized by exaggerated shapes, patterns and colours, almost to resemble one of the kings on the game cards.

    Roberto Abbado is one of those conductors able to combine rhythmic precision with an orchestral cantabile quality, but his Donizetti sounded rationed and measured out – in its tempos and sonorities – as well as, all things considered, not analyzed in depth. Which is the main difficulty that Anna Bolena presents for a conductor? To be moving, to be channelled on a double track: architectonical balances and the shattering of the inner articulations, a Janus Bifrons of Rossinian calibrations and Romantic solicitations that could no longer be postponed after the groundbreaking Il pirata (that precedes Anna Bolena by three years). The Italian conductor seemed to stop at the first part of the building, to the Donizetti that looks back rather than the one projected forward. Most importantly, a certain slowness in the choice of tempos gave the impression of hindering the singers in several instances. Also disappointing was the presence of some cuts: if Act I was almost intact, with all the da capos dutifully variated, Act II suffered the ignominy of the axe too many times.

    The role of Enrico VIII and Percy were the most trimmed, and perhaps not by chance. Roberto Scandiuzzi disappointed in the role of the pluri-uxoricide monarch. His bass sounded fatigued, often unsupported and flat, at times resorting to a sort of “sprechgesang” utterly inappropriate in this repertoire. A perceptible crack on a high D in the recitative preceding Seymour’s Act II aria (on the words “l’amante son io”) was the most jarring moment of a forgettable performance. Large chunks of the act II Bolena-Percy-Enrico trio that starts with the Larghetto “Sin dall’età più tenera”, particularly the parts where Enrico engages in wide ranging arpeggios and (relatively) arduous coloratura, did not make to the final cut.

    It is impossible to understand – when attending performances or listening to recordings of Anna Bolena – the real significance of the role of Percy, a character that in the nineteenth century exerted a formidable catalytic action on the audience’s emotions. Today it is either cut to shreds or entrusted (with very few exceptions) to tenors unable to cope with all its demands. The role was written for Giovanni Battista Rubini, a tenor of extraordinary agility and subtlety, gifted with an exceptional high range (in falsettone, of course). Obviously Donizetti kept in mind such characteristics, as well as his predilection to permeate with a suave melancholy the gentle, elegiac, undulating melodies that characterized Italian opera of the 1830s with the names of “cantilenas”. Such is the nature of arias like “Da quel dì che t’ho perduta” or “Vivi tu”; or cantabiles in the mould of “S’ei t’aborre, io t’amo ancora” or “Fin dall’età più tenera”. Our Percy, Shalva Mukeria, showed a decent long trill on the G4 in the phrase “perch’io mora di piacer” in the act I cabaletta “Ah, così nei dì ridenti”. The first octave was however practically muffled and inaudible, the middle range weak and fragile and even his top, albeit easy, sounded rather small and with a strong trace of nasality. Thus the cabaletta, the moderato “Nel veder la tua costanza” (whose daccapo was not repeated) lacked the required vehemence, and its high Cs failed to sound as the climaxes of the piece.

    Kostantin Gorny and Luca Casalin honourably completed the male cast as Lord Rochefort and Sir Hervey, respectively. José Maria Lo Monaco, a magnificent Ottavia in L’incoronazione di Poppea last summer here in Florence, was not so impressive as Smeton in Anna Bolena. The role of the page, encompassing a two-octave range from G3 to G5 requires an authentic contralto, which Ms. Lo Monaco clearly is not. She is an accomplished lyric mezzo-soprano who struggled with the low tessitura, huffing and puffing in her attempt to reach notes that are not part of her natural vocal structure.

    The role of Giovanna Seymour, normally assigned to mezzo-sopranos, was actually written for what in the early nineteenth century used to be called a “soprano limitato”, where “limited” did not refer so much to actual vocal limitations of the singer, but to her subordinate position in respect to the prima donna. Another illustrious example of such roles (very often assigned to young emerging singers) is Adalgisa in Norma, created by Giulia Grisi, who just a few years later will become one of the most legendary interpreters of the title role. Just like Adalgisa, Seymour’s tessitura is high, so much that in the Act II duet it is Seymour that sings the higher line, and Donizetti filled it with virtuosistic tricks, always careful however to keep it less showy and splashy than the title role. Sonia Ganassi, a very high mezzo-soprano comfortable in the upper regions, was an ideal Seymour. She brought to the role her time-honoured Rossini experience, thus flawlessly performing all the bel canto requirements (beautiful trills, clean agility, and long breaths: sensational was the long uninterrupted phrase “Ah non io, non io v’offria questo core a torto offeso” in the Act I duet with Enrico) combining it with a red-hot intensity that made her act II duet with Anna a truly memorable moment. Likewise, she brought the house down with a striking cabaletta “Ah, pensate che rivolti” capped with two glorious high Bs.

    Facing such a lavish and impassioned antagonist would certainly stimulate any primadonna to give her best, and from her first few measures Mariella Devia demonstrated she was not going to be upstaged. The Italian soprano, already a veteran of this production having starred in the Verona première as well as in the Palermo and Trieste revivals, adheres completely to Vick’s dramatic concept, creating a most intense character in her own way. It would be absurd to expect Ms. Devia to imitate some of the most extroverted virago-Bolenas of the past or of the present. One would search in vain for the haughty incredulity in “Giudici! Ad Anna” or the choking hate in “Tu? Mia rivale!”. Rather, she offers an autumnal portrait that she composes by taking advantage of the golden reflections of her timbre. It would also be dishonest not to stress the fact that Anna Bolena’s tessitura does not play to Ms. Devia’s advantage. Giuditta Pasta, the creator of the role, was not a stratospheric soprano. Hers was – by all accounts – a mezzo-soprano on which, by sheer will power and determination, she had managed to graft a few more notes, and not always successfully, according to many reviews of the time. This role lies very low, and not only for Mariella Devia. Giulietta Simionato used to recollect how often Maria Callas would complain – during the rehearsals and performances of the historical revival at La Scala – about its fatiguing low tessitura. Thus, although Mariella Devia is too intelligent an artist to try to artificially enlarge a low register that she does not have, it is undeniable that moments like the sextet “Io sentii sulla mia mano” did not produce much of an effect. Furthermore, she transported upwards several key phrases (“ci divida e terra e mar” in the Act I duet with Percy), but here she is in good company, as many others, including Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills indulged in it.

    Of course, her virtuosistic equipment is still unequalled. She tackles those frequent ascending jumps with fearless élan and an absolute control of the sound. There is never a single note that sounds vulgar, uncontrolled, or off pitch. When she abandons herself to the languid and pathetic phrasing, which is her natural element, her timbre acquires an almost metaphysical, angelic sound. Breathtaking was the rarefied atmosphere she created in “Al dolce guidami”, whose ascending roulades were spun out with suavity and clarity, much more remarkable by virtue of their expressive intensity.

    When the tessitura allowed it, she was even excellent in the “coloratura di forza”, such as in the formidable sequence of ascending trills in “Coppia iniqua”. Her top is still a force of nature: perhaps she may no longer have the F6 of ten years ago, but her high D, with which she concluded Act I, and E flat, which –ça van sans dire – ended the opera, are still an effortless, never-ending wonder. I am hard pressed to think of another singer who has retained the same vocal freshness after a forty-year career. Ms. Devia’s next logical step at this point is to tackle the Mount Everest of soprano roles, Norma, which she has just officially announced she will perform next year in Bologna. Don’t walk – run to buy your tickets as soon as you can.

    It would be wonderful to end the review on such a high note, and invite the readers to book the first plane to Florence, but it appears the performance under review will be the only one executed with full orchestra and chorus. Because of a strike of the orchestra, the second performance has already been presented with piano accompaniment only, and the future of the next ones is uncertain. Unfortunately in Italy the magical world of opera often clashes with the brutal reality of the demands of daily life, right or wrong though they may be.
    (Edited from Opera Britania)

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    Roberto Abbado
    Sonia Ganassi
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    Shalva Mukeria
    Roberto Scandiuzzi
    Jose Maria lo Monaco