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Wife Swap

October 15, 2011

Stephen Costello and Anna Netrebko Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011
Oh that Anna. She is something else, isn’t she. Anna Netrebko, that is, who is starring in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at The Metropolitan Opera in New York this season and whom I saw as part of the in-house audience on Saturday. I make this distinction, because Netrebko’s face and voice may be just as familiar to audiences on the big screen, given that she has served as siren and ultimate icon for many of the company’s Live in HD broadcast series that has been remaking the face of opera since Peter Gelb initiated the program in 2006. To use the old cliché, the camera loves her. And it’s probably for similar reasons as to why she is so fun to watch live. She’s easily one of the best singing actors in the business and her physical presence and expressions contribute as much to her performances as her vocal production. When she exits the stage at the end of the show, her hair held aside in preparation for the ax it's a thrilling moment. She is using more than her voice to communicate, which despite what some people want you to believe, is a strength. Her performance in Anna Bolena should finally silence some of the unrepentant dickering over the relatively minor flaws in her vocal technique. Yes, I realize haters gonna hate, but she was on point scene after scene today making beautiful music and never leaving a doubt about who was the star of this show. She didn’t even have to lay down on the floor to do it.

What was going on around Ms. Netrebko at times lived up to her example. Stephen Costello was the old beau, Lord Percy, and he sang admirably if a little pinched at the top. But make no mistake, when he appeared bare-legged and disheveled on his way to the executioner alongside bass-bartione Keith Miller’s solid Lord Rochefort the cries of “break me off a piece of that” could clearly be heard across the country. Ekaterina Gubanova availed herself nicely alongside Netrebko in their Act II duet and she also paired nicely with Ildar Abdrazakov as King Henry VIII. Abdrazakov is a great villain onstage and he excelled here.

What didn’t work as well was the support from the non-vocal elements. Conductor Marco Armiliato stuck me as overly indulgent of the cast at times and the orchestral performance lacked crispness and drive, getting muddy at times. And then there is that David McVicar production. Of course, seeing this show in the wake of Michael Grandage’s new Don Giovanni for the company immediately made me think, “well, at least it’s not that bad.” McVicar knows what to do with his actors, and in this cast he was blessed with performers who’ve got a clue to begin with. But again the vacant, unchanging set offered little that was interesting to look at. McVicar has pointed out elsewhere that the barren look of these Tudor rooms is historically accurate. Sure. And there were no utensils in Medieval Times, hence there are no utensils at Medieval Times, but even there you can get a refill on your Pepsi. It’s a 19th Century Italian opera about 16th Century British monarchy that plays fast and loose with the facts to begin with – you can swing some more furniture and no one’s gonna notice, trust me. Actually, I must give McVicar props about keeping things moving. He’s against dropping the curtain for scene changes, and rightly so. This Anna Bolena moves along if nothing else. However, the problem remains the same as it has for most of the purely home grown new productions the Met has staged over the last few seasons – they don’t go far enough. The heart is in the right place, trying to give the operas a more modern and theatrical look. But the approaches remain timid, undercooked and still trying far too hard not to offend. How will all this come off without a superstar like Netrebko? We’re about to find out when the much talked about Angela Meade steps into this show on Oct 21 for three performances before Netrebko returns for two more performances in February. And while she's still in it, there is definitely a show worth seeing.


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