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Anna Bolena

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For the first time in years opening night at the Metropolitan Opera was a total triumph.

What makes the achievement more remarkable is that the opera being performed is of historic significance but has none of the qualities that makes for a staple of the repertory. In fact Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" was making its Met debut -- 179 years after its premiere in Milan in 1830!!! It is dramatic, melodious and well-wrought, but compared to Donizetti's masterpieces, let alone those of his contemporary Bellini, it pales.

"Anna Bolena" is Donizetti's account of the unhappy final days of one of the early wives of King Henry VIII. 19th century opera librettists were not concerned with historical accuracy. They wanted plots that fit the conventions of their art, which was manufactured like Hollywood films a century later. I don't know the particulars of Ann Boleyn's ill-fated marital career but here it is depicted with the same grim relish as the fictional plot of "La Gioconda." It is the stuff of jealousy and revenge. Like other works of the bel canto period, it has a mad scene.

There is only one reason even to consider mounting it -- a spectacular dramatic soprano. And the Met has one in Anna Netrebko. It is a score with a huge range and many treacheries, but at no point did the fearless Netrebko give any indication that there were difficulties. Her voice was sure and luminous throughout and at its most radiant in the dramatic outbursts. In a break with tradition Netrebko gets a solo call when the final curtain falls. The house went wild. There was an impression of almost girlish joyousness on her face as she realized what she had achieved.

The score presents similar difficulties for the others, but the Met assembled an impressively first rate team of singers. (A Russian friend noted, with pride, that three of them, including Netrebko, were Russian.) Ann's rival, Lady Jane Seymour, or Giovanna Seymour, is sung with enormous power and beauty by mezzo Ekaterina Guberova. The fickle Henry was sung by Ibdar Abdrazakov, who has a huge, beautiful bass voice.

American tenor Stephen Costello has a rich tenor voice, which negotiated the coloratura passages with great brio and the moments of passion with convincing fervor. American mezzo Tamara Mumford sang the role of the court minstrel Smeaton with enormous beauty and force.

The physical production by Robert Jones conveys the grace and formality of Tudor England beautifully. It is lit dramatically and sombrely by Paule Constable. Jenny Tiramani's costumes are sumptuous, especially her gowns for the female rivals. David McVicar's staging is straightforward and effective, especially his final bit of business for Anna.

This was an evening that achieved brilliantly the restoration of an opera never destined for great popularity but immensely worthy of being remembered.