Friday, 21 October 2011

Anna Bolena - Metropolitan Opera House, Saturday 15th October 2011

England, 1536. At Richmond Castle, courtiers discuss the state of royal affairs: Queen Anne’s star is sinking since King Henry VIII has fallen in love with another woman. Jane Seymour, Anne’s lady-in-waiting, appears, followed by the queen, who admits to Jane that she is troubled. Anne asks her page Smeaton to sing a song to cheer everyone. His words remind her of the happiness of her first love, which she gave up to marry the king.

Alone in her bedchamber, Jane — who is in fact the king’s new lover— is conscious-stricken about her betrayal. Henry appears and passionately declares his love, promising Jane marriage and glory. She is disturbed by his threats about Anne’s future but realizes that it is too late for her to turn back

Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort, meets Lord Richard Percy, the queen’s former lover, in Richmond Park. Percy, who has been called back from exile by the king, admits that his own life has been miserable since he and Anne have been apart. The king arrives with a hunting party. He coolly greets his wife, then tells Percy that he has the queen to thank for his pardon. In fact, he has arranged Percy’s return as a trap for Anne. He orders one of his officers to spy on the couple. Smeaton, who is in love with the queen, is on his way to her apartments to return a miniature portrait of her that he had stolen. He hides when Anne appears with Rochefort, who persuades his sister to admit Percy. Anne admits that the king hates her, but she remains firm and pleads with Percy to find another woman worthy of his affection. Just as he draws his sword and threatens to kill himself, Henry bursts in. Smeaton proclaims the queen’s innocence and in the process the furious king seizes the miniature, providing him with welcome proof of his wife’s seeming infidelity. Anne, Percy, and Smeaton are arrested

Anne has been imprisoned in her London apartments. Jane arrives to tell her that she can avoid execution by pleading guilty and confessing her love for Percy, thereby allowing the king to remarry. Anne refuses, cursing the woman who will be her successor. Jane admits that she is that woman. Shocked, Anne dismisses her . Smeaton has falsely testified to being the queen’s lover, believing that his confession would save Anne’s life, but in fact he has sealed her fate. Anne tells the king that she is ready to die but begs him to spare her the humiliation of a trial. Percy claims that he and Anne were married before she became the king’s wife. Even though he thinks this is a lie, Henry triumphantly replies that another, worthier woman will ascend the throne. Jane pleads with Henry for Anne’s life, but he dismisses her. News arrives of the council’s verdict: The royal marriage is dissolved and Anne and her accomplices are to be executed.

Her fellow prisoners are brought in and Smeaton blames himself for having caused Anne’s impending death. When bells and cannon fire are heard, announcing the king’s new marriage, Anne suddenly comes to her senses. She furiously curses the royal couple and goes off to face her execution.
Anne Boleyn - Anna Netrebko
Jane Seymour - Ekaterina Gubanova
Smeaton - Tamara Mumford
Richard Percy - Stephen Costello
Henry VIII - Ildar Abdrazakov

Creative team:
Music: Gaetano Donizetti
Production: David McVicar
Set design: Robert Jones
Costumes: Jenny Tiramani
Lighting: Paule Constable

No, I haven’t suddenly decided to take a short break in New York – this was the first in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 “Live Transmission” series, which I saw from a very comfortable seat at Greenwich Picturehouse. Sure, I wasn’t there in person, but feel that a live relay entitles me to write a review as if I was. And hey, its either write a review of Anna Bolena or do the washing up, and I know which I’d rather do, frankly. The main reason we went was that Anna Netrebko was starring in the title role – and as regular readers will know, the woman is practically the House Goddess around here. I have to admit that on paper, she’s not the first person you would think of when casting this role – Boleyn was in her late 20’s when she was scheming and screwing her way to the top, and Netrebko is now 40 and, frankly, rather matronly. If anyone’s writing an opera about the life of Catherine of Aragon, Netrebko is definitely your diva. Seeing her as Anne Boleyn is admittedly a stretch, although perhaps not quite so much a stretch as seeing Ekaterina Gubanova as Jane Seymour, resembling as she did more resemblance to an animated sofa than to the pale and submissive teenage Queen-in-Waiting. Anyhoo, Anna Bolena takes a shedload of historical liberties with the story anyway so I suppose this was just one more liberty the audience had to swallow. Mind you, the audience in Greenwich was so old and doddery the majority of them were probably at Court when Anne Boleyn was still in nappies – one old cove a couple of rows behind us could be heard pontificating that “the entire intelligentsia of SE13 are here this afternoon”, obviously failing to realise that some of the said intelligentsia had travelled all the way from the cultural deserts of SE9 to be there. I do love opera audiences; they’re always so entirely convinced of their own superiority over other people. It’s a pleasure to listen to them sort their world into “opera lovers” and “scum”. Fortunately, if I get “Opera Snob DTs” I can always listen to my own personal Opera Snob waffling on about “the vocal instrument”. and "snatching at the top D in "Visi tui".  

The problem with this opera is that you cannot do anything with it. It has a specific setting in a specific historical period and this means it can’t be fiddled with. Allied to this problem is that it’s very much a “stand there and sing” piece – lots of declaiming, very little action. There are no choruses of jolly villagers to leaven the mix and bring a bit of light relief. There’s no humorous mistaken identities, nobody dressing up as someone else and not being recognised until the final scene. Everyone is angst-ridden and watching their neck, the story is set in a particular groove and all that the performers can do is get through it as best they can. This is old-fashioned opera – everyone standing around singing at each other wringing their hands and emoting like crazy. So it does make for a fairly static production even at the best of times, and the Met’s stab at it is no exception. Jenny Tiramani’s costumes do little to leaven the gloom – for the most part everyone is dressed in sombre colours so there’s little to look at when the going gets heavy. Tiramani was interviewed backstage in the interval – she bears more than a passing resemblance to Edna Modes from The Invincibles – and gave a spirited defence of her designs, saying that she had used Holbein portraits as her inspiration, so they were historically accurate. That’s all well and good, but this is opera, for pete’s sake – you can get away with murder if you want to; people will swallow big lies in opera but choke on the little ones. I don’t see any reason why things couldn’t have been brightened up a bit. I had a major problem with the female cast’s headdresses – Anne Boleyn was educated at the French court, and popularised French fashions in England when she became queen. Anna Bolena herself only appeared in the French hood once when she should have been wearing it constantly and every other woman on stage wore the Gable hood, a by then very old fashioned style; Netrebko later appeared wearing a type of headdress more associated with Anne of Cleves and which was not fashionable in England at the time.  Every woman at court during Anne’s reign would have followed the fashion set by the Queen. What is worse, the Gable hood doesn’t suit women with large features, and Gubanova looked like somebody had dropped a small house on her head. So much for authenticity of research – it was simply wrong. Another major historical inaccuracy was having Netrebko make her first entrance accompanied by a young girl with long red hair – presumably this was meant to be her daughter, the future Elizabeth I – yet Elizabeth was barely 3 years old when Boleyn died.

Anyway, I have digressed and found myself stuck in a slight backwater here. Meanwhile, in another room in the castle……One thing I did enjoy about the production was that the set allowed for a great deal of listening at doors or processing along shadowy corridors while the principals slugged it out centre stage, which really brought home just how dangerous a place Henry’s court was – you were never alone, even when you thought you were. There was always someone sneaking around picking up little snippets of information to be stored away and used against someone at a later date. And I enjoyed Netrebko’s performance thoroughly – crikey, that woman can act. She can switch from fury to terror in the click of a finger, and I thought she brought Donizetti’s somewhat two-dimensional heroine fully to life (charmingly, in her pre-performance interview, she confessed to having watched several episodes of The Tudors as research). Ildar Abdrazakov (a name which sounds more like a sneeze every time I say it) left his audience in no doubt that his Henry was a man used to being obeyed instantly and constantly frustrated that his Queen refused to be brought to heel. Henry VIII is somewhat of a cardboard king anyway – we all know (or think we know) what Henry was like because of the way he is portrayed in portraits, in films and on TV, and Mr. Sneezy managed to flesh out his portrayal excellently. Gubanova was awful – far too old, far too fat, far too wooden; a really unlikely choice of shag for the King of England when he’s got Netrebko’s Boleyn to get jiggy with.

So it was an interesting evening – an interesting experience to see a live transmission and what could be done to make a really boring, static opera more accessible (answer: not that much). It was hilarious to hear Renee Fleming, hosting the transmission, make an appeal for donations to the Met (probably the richest opera house in the entire world) when they get corporate sponsorship by Bloomberg, a deeply nasty corporation devoted to the evils of Capitalism and with trillions in the bank and Toll Brothers, “America’s luxury home builders” who design “trophy homes” for America’s most evil Capitalists. But it was not so much fun sitting next to one particular old cow in the audience. I’d been running the tail end of a bad cold during the week and had just reached the “oh god I can’t stop coughing” stage. I’d managed not to cough at all during the first three hours or so, but the dry air in the cinema caught up with me by the final act. Its not like I was coughing up blood like some tubercular heroine or something, and I did have a handkerchief with me that I used to muffle the sound as much as I could. But the more I tried to relax my throat, the more persistent the tickle got and inevitably, the coughs came. I left my seat at the end, wriggled out past said old cow and then stood to one side to let other people pass while Him Indoors gathered up his opera glasses and his fur stole. Old Cow obviously thought I had left, because she boomed out to her companion “I could have walloped that fool who ruined everything by coughing all the way through”. The red mist descended and I told her in no uncertain terms that I’d done my best a) not to cough to start with and b) be as quiet as I could and that coughing was a human function with no laws against it in public places. Unfortunately for Old Cow, she decided to counter this by telling me “You should have stayed at home”. I was sorely tempted to ask her if I she'd rather I wasted my ticket and stood in the broom cupboard at home instead, but contended myself by telling her to hurry home in case someone dropped a house on her too. Silly old bitch.

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