Coda: Judging Anna 


Coda Bolena hdl 212
© Beth Bergman 2012

With the Live in HD program, the Metropolitan Opera has been able to capture new audiences worldwide. It's certainly cheaper and more convenient than a trip to New York — but how do the experiences compare? Curious to find the answer, I took in David McVicar's new production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena in the house on opening night, September 26, then attended the sixth performance of the show via HD transmission at Manhattan's Ziegfeld Theater on October 15.

In the house, my primary visual impressions involved the monochromatic qualities of Robert Jones's grey, prison-like sets, Jenny Tiramani's mostly black, multi-layered Tudor costumes and Paule Constable's shadowy lighting. Throughout, there wasn't much to look at; the production seemed designed as a frame for Anna Netrebko's star turn as the title character. Unfortunately, I found that performance unconvincing. There was little nuance and no vulnerability in the portrayal. Netrebko's singing lacked bel canto sparkle and tension and seemed unconnected to any emotion other than anger. By contrast, Ildar Abdrazakov brought an outsized personality to the stage, playing a manipulative, power-abusing King Henry. You believed in him, and his grand costumes — particularly the gold cloak of Act II that made him look like a Holbein portrait of the King — intensified the effect. Anne, buffeted by betrayal, should be the opera's center, with the other characters — Henry, her reluctant rival Jane Seymour, her admirers Percy and Smeaton — forcing her to go through changes. Here, with a monochromatic Anne, Henry called the shots and took the spotlight, unbalancing the show.

In HD, the emphasis shifted. Video director Gary Halvorson emphasized close-ups, so the drab sets receded into insignificance, and the movement of the walls for set changes, which added a bit of visual drama in the house, was hard to see. Now, all the costumes — not just Henry's — carried the production's look. In close-up, standing out against the grey walls rather than blending in with them, their sumptuous fabrics, multiple layers and details such as jewels and fur sleeves became much clearer, anchoring the production firmly in the sixteenth century. 

The close-ups and the quick cuts also gave the production a new tension and drive. In the house, conductor Marco Armiliato's pacing felt flaccid and indulgent of his leading lady's tendency to drag out her lyrical moments. With the camera dictating the audience's gaze, the production acquired a narrative direction. Within an aria or a duet, Halvorson often switched between camera angles, keeping the momentum going. And with the eye engaged, the ear followed. In addition, staging details that might be missed in the massed darkness in the house — such as the moment when Henry points his crossbow directly at Anna, or Percy's tied hands and bare legs and feet in the prison scene — popped on the screen, underscoring the power relationships that are so crucial to the opera. Suddenly, this Anna Bolena started to make more sense.

Even Netrebko's performance gained some intensity when seen on the screen. Her comment during her pre-show dressing-room interview — "I'm getting in a bad mood now. I'm in a bad mood for the whole opera" — pretty much summed up my impression of her performance in the house, but in close-up, the intention was clearer. I didn't agree with it, but I could see her working and understand what she was doing — playing the regal Queen all the way, hanging tough against her enemies. In the house, the confrontation with Jane Seymour, in which the lady-in-waiting unhappily reveals that she is Anne's rival for Henry's attentions, was emotionally one-sided, with all the feeling coming from the fine Ekaterina Gubanova as Jane. In HD, their interaction had more spark, as the camera followed Netrebko's upstage wanderings and tracked her otherwise invisible reactions. And in the finale of Act I, her whispered repetition of the word "Giudice!" had the shock value in close-up that it missed in the house.

Some elements, however, were less effective in HD. Moments that involved the chorus lost any grandeur they might have had. The slow pan of the women lined up at the front of the stage, introducing Anne's mad scene with their pitying lament, looked amateurish. More critically, the sound in the movie theater was flat and loud, without the bloom and the enveloping quality that one experiences in the opera house. High frequencies, such as the tenor of Stephen Costello (Percy), were almost painful. And the mad scene, confusingly shot, exposed Netrebko's limitations as an actress. It was a generic Donizetti mad scene, without the vocal thrills.

When opera productions and opera singers are at their best, the effect can be brilliantly intensified by the close-up treatment of HD. Consider Roberto Alagna and Elina Garanča playing the final scene of the Met's Carmenwith its whiplash reactions and consuming fury. And there was Simon Keenlyside's performance as Macbeth, shown live from the Royal Opera House last June. The production was nothing special, and the other singers were only fair, but Keenlyside displayed the range of a Shakespearean actor in a breathtaking performance. The technology is worth it, if only for that. spacer 

HEIDI WALESON is the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal. 

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