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Monday, August 10, 2015

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Anna Bolena

Sondra Radvanovsky puts her head on the block.
By Paul J. Pelkonen
Sondra Radvanovsky as Anne Boleyn in the Washington National Opera production of Anna Bolena. 
Photo by Scott Suchman for the Kennedy Center.

The big spectacular event of the 2015-2016 Metropolitan Opera schedule is not a Wagnerian extravaganza but a triptych of three operas by Gaetano Donizetti, informally referred to as the “three Queens." This year, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky looks to become the first diva to sing the leading roles in Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux on the Met stage. First up is the revival of Anna Bolena, which opened the Met season in 2011.

Anna Bolena is the story of the ill-starred second  wife of King Henry VIII. Henry founded the Church of England after the pope refused him a divorce in order to marry Anne. Ms. Radvanovsky plays the queen in her short sharp decline. She is a tragic figure, timately isolated and executed when Henry falls for her lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour. (In a casting change, mezzo Elina Garanca has withdrawn for these performances and will be replaced by the excellent Jamie Barton.)

The opera has splendid writing for the favored bel canto pairing of soprano and mezzo, which mounts in intensity as the relationship between the two women grows more and more toxic. Ildar Abdrazakov revives his stellar performance as Henry, a dreadful husband and a bass-baritone villain in the fine Italianate tradition. The tenor role of Percy is also challenging, calling for a high E above the stage, although some singers elect to use the easier, transposed version of the score.

This production directed by David McVicar, marked the beginning of an ambitions project to stage the "Three Queens", Donizetti's informal trilogy of operas based on English history. A revival of Maria Stuarda ("Mary Stuart", about the conflict between Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I) follows later in the season, followed by a new production of  Roberto Devereux which tells the story of a later episode in the life of Elizabeth.

Coro e Orchestra della Scala cond. Gianandrea Gavazzeni (EMI, 1957)
Anna Bolena: Maria Callas
Giovanna Seymour: Giulietta Simoniato
Percy: Gianni Raimondi
Enrico: Nicola Rossi-Lemeni

This is a live broadcast from 1957 featuring Maria Callas as the doomed queen. And although this is an edited version of the score, Callas is phenomenal here, captured in excellent form before her decline. She is well matched with Giulietta Simoniato as Giovanna Seymour. Tenor Gianni Raimondi tackles Percy. Gavazzeni was a "house conductor" at La Scala, and is both efficient and idiomatic.

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