From another age

What follows is long. But I didn’t try to cut it down. It’s about bel canto opera, which I love with a wild passion. It might be my favorite kind of music. So I just let myself go. 

This — my indulgence, my blogger’s sweet tooth — is all you might have from me for a few days. I’ll be traveling to see family. 

Anna Bolena, opening the Met Opera season, was pretty much a dud. And though that’s not what I want to focus on here, I can’t help thinking of another prominent Met production, last year’s Die Walküre, which was also a dud. More or less misconceived from start to finish, as Bolena was.

An early performance of Anna Bolena

Anna Bolena, as performed in the 19th century

One problem the productions shared — both operas have key roles that need singers with a strong lower range, but the singers cast in those roles didn’t have it. Which made the Wotan/Brünnhilde scene early in the second act of Walküre especially trying, because almost all of it is low, and neither Bryn Terfel or Deborah Voigt can declaim with any force in the lower octave of their range. Hurt them throughout the opera, especially when they had to declaim in the lower octave forcefully, but it especially killed their big second-act scene.

In Bolena, the two roles that need a forceful lower range are the title role, Anna (aka Anne Boleyn), and Anna’s scathing antagonist, her husband Enrico (aka Henry VIII). I won’t deny that Anna Nebtrebko sang Anna’s high-lying music very beautifully, but the meat of the role lies low, and she just didn’t have it in her lower octave. Especially in her biggest dramatic moments, which are almost all written low. Enrico likewise — you need a true bass, who can sing with terrifying force an octave below middle C, where much of his strongest music lies. (Look, for instance, at the cabaletta of the second-act trio, where he’s raging, almost losing himself, and has to do it almost entirely in the octave below middle C.)

And instead we got Ildar Abdrazakov, a pleasant bass-baritone, whose voice rang out nicely above middle C, but couldn’t begin to produce the low notes the score calls for. He could sing them, obviously. But not with the scathing regal power the music is supposed to project. (And he really did seem like a pleasant guy — no more forbidding, as a treacherous king, than some angelic six year-old would be if he dressed up as Dracula.)

You really wonder why the Met can’t figure these things out in advance. Five minutes with the score should tell any opera professional what’s needed. So why not cast suitable singers, or else leave the opera alone?

(Additional rant: open the score, and page through the tenor’s two arias. You’ll find acrobatic passages in both, where the singer needs to leap up to high C, and then sing scales down from it. Stephen Costello, miscast in the part, couldn’t sing a high C. The sound he produced was — and, truly, I’m sorry to sound harsh, but this is the truth — an unmusical squeal, pitched vaguely in the area of high C. But maybe more like an unpitched sound, than a sung note. So why cast him? Maybe, a couple of years ago, when he would have been engaged for the part, he really could sing the Cs. But since he can’t do it now, why send him onstage to fail so badly?

(Worse still — the high-C passage in the second aria is repeated! So why not at least cut the repeat? Hardly a crime, in a production where — presumably to save Netrebko’s voice — four measures were discreetly sliced out of the repeat of her big final aria.

(And in any case it’s a kind of crime against nature, as people in Donizetti’s time would have thought, for any tenor to sing the repeated passage in the aria with the same notes each time. The whole point of writing the repeat is for the singer to sing something different the second time, something we seem to have forgotten, and which makes bel canto operas like Bolena a little duller than they need to be, when we perform them now.)


But I’ve just let myself go. I didn’t mean to rant. What interests me most is what kind of opera Bolena is. Yes, a bel canto opera, and yes, almost always talked about as part of a trilogy of operas — Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda are the others — that Donizetti wrote about British queens.

But these operas aren’t really a trilogy. Donizetti had no thought of putting them together. And Bolena was written much earlier than the others. It was Donizetti’s breakthrough piece, his first great success, and strikes me as very much a transitional piece, not just for Donizetti, but for the way opera in those days was evolving. Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda (and also Lucia di Lammermoor, of course the best known of Donizetti’s serious operas) are compact pieces, in which Donizetti tries to shape and color everything to suit the drama at hand.

Bolena, by contrast, tends to sprawl. It lasted around three and half hours at the Met, long for a bel canto piece, and in fact long enough for the orchestra to get paid overtime. Which almost never happens in Italian opera.

Bolena sprawls for two reasons. One is that only some of it is really good music. Its great appeal — and this really is special — is a particular kind of melancholy, unique, not found anywhere else in Donizetti. The entire first scene has this tinta (to use the Italian word; in English, though the translation isn’t evocative enough, “this color). The entire last scene, a true work of genius, has it. The opening chorus of the second act has it. The trio for Anna, Enrico, and the poor hapless tenor in the second act has it. (The character is about as hapless as the singer sometimes sounded.) Parts of the big duet between Anna and Giovanna (Jane Seymour, her best friend, who turns out to be her rival for the king’s unreliable love) have it.

But only parts of that duet! And entire scenes lack the opera’s central melancholy, most notably the scene in the last act devoted almost entirely to the tenor’s second aria. Which, when the opera was new, its big hit tune, a chance for the tenor the role was written for, Giovanni Battista Rubini, to do what he did best, which was stand still and mesmerize the audience with the most melting presentation of pretty tunes. But the aria, pretty as it is, could pretty much be dropped into any opera of the period. And, if you’re looking at the opera as drama, is so not needed that it was cut entirely from the famous 1957 production at La Scala, which starred Maria Callas, and put Bolena back in the repertoire.

The other reason for the sprawl is more important. Italian opera was becoming more compact, more focused on drama, which was starting to be painted in colors unique to each opera. But it had come from a place typified by Rossini’s serious operas, pieces like Semiramide, which go on forever, and are structured with huge stretches of theatrical/musical rhetoric. In a duet, for instance, first one character will sing quite a long stretch of music, and then the other character will sing exactly the same thing.

Try doing that in La Traviata, and it won’t work at all. You’ll lose all intimacy, and all focus on separate characters and their different emotions. It worked in earlier operas for two reasons. First, the audience sat and talked during the music, so long stretches with no gripping interest were acceptable, or even welcome, because they wouldn’t intrude on conversation. The repetition also helped the audience to absorb the music without paying full attention. (And also made the opera easier to compose — with a lot of repetition, there’s less music to write — easier to learn, and easier to rehearse, especially for the orchestra.)

And, second, the singers changed what the composer wrote, so the second singer to sing the long rhetorical passage (which often broke into two or more sections, each with a somewhat separate character) would sing it differently from the first singer. The actual notes would be different! So, for those in the audience who were paying attention, the repetition wasn’t exact. (And the best singers would vary the notes they sang at each performance, a special delight in a culture where the opera was the only entertainment in town, and many people went to it night after night.)

We don’t have this old Italian operatic culture anymore. We sit and listen to every note. And the singers mostly sing only what’s in the score. So the parts of Anna Bolena (like the start of the Giovanna-Enrico and Anna-Percy duets in the first act, Percy being the tenor character’s name) that unfold in this old style need some special help.

The famous 1957 production addressed this problem in a truly striking way. The opera was drastically cut, so that — among many other changes — these formal, rhetorical repetitions were removed. Anna Bolena now flowed at the fast pace of Tosca. Very effective (and preserved in live recordings, for anyone who wants to hear it), but absolutely unacceptable today, for better or worse. (Better, because we get to hear the opera more or less as Donizetti wrote it. Worse, because some really empty music is left in, like the overture, or the scene for Anna’s page that comes before Anna’s duet with the tenor — music that surely nobody at all listened to back when the opera was new, except maybe at the premiere.)

(I like the overture, I have to admit. It’s just as effective as the big Rossini overtures, but has nothing to do with the opera. The 1957 production cut it, and I think the opera is far more gripping if you plunge directly into the first scene.)

So if we can’t cut the rhetoric, if we have to listen to it, and the singers won’t vary it, it’s going to need special help. it’s going to need really eloquent presentation from the singers, and really propulsive support from the conductor. The singers are going to have to shape these passages with the variety and force of great actors, declaiming the words (even in the most lyrical passages) with great force and understanding. Then this music will come alive.

Which becomes true, actually, for much of this opera. It’s an opera that needs help. It’s not more or less indestructible, as Lucia is. Even in a bad performance of Lucia, you’ll recognize the force and quality of most of the music. But not in Bolena. Without special eloquence from the singers, much of Bolena will fall flat, or seem merely pretty.

Which is something else the Met may not have thought about carefully enough, and in the end was the biggest reason the evening was such a dud.

(In spite of some lovely singing from Netrebko in the final scene. But if I may rant just a little more, the most famous passage in the final aria is a series of forceful trills, moving note by note up the scale, starting low in the singer’s range, with a crescendo marking, meaning that the trills should steadily get louder. And also, just to make sure we get it, Donizetti writes, over this passage, the words sempre rinf., meaning “always getting stronger.” Listen to the live recording of Callas singing this. She does exactly what Donizetti calls for. It’s hairraising.

(But at the Met we had Netrebko, who can’t sing a trill, and has no force in her lower range. She couldn’t make anything of this passage at all — the most famous music in her part. Netrebko is a serious artist, sings with melting beauty in her upper-middle and upper range, cares about the drama, and honorably tries to make everything work. But in this role she’s miscast.)

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  1. Robert Berger says

    I wasn’t there on opening night, but possibly later performances will improve and take fire.
    Sorry, but with all due respect, I think you’re just very biased against the Met,and to today’s singers in general.
    You have such a rose-colored picture of the singers of the past, and idealize them to the point where you just can’t appreciate the considerable virtues of today’s great singers.
    Of course, you’re hardly alone in having such attitudes. And I remember similar reviews and commentary by critics and fans all the way back to the 70s, when I really started to get into opera. The idealized “golden age” of opera has been clouding the thinking of critics and opera fans for ages.
    Even Rossini in his later years complained that singing was in decline ! The more things change……

  2. Tom Chambers says

    Your discussion of Italian sprawl caught my eye because, coincidentally, I’ve just been introducing myself to French Baroque opera. After a week of Lully (Thesee) and Rameau (Hippolyte), for sake of comparison I threw on the stereo an approximately contemporaneous ‘Italian’ opera (Rinaldo–Rene Jacobs, I think it was your blog that steered me towards that version). My immediate impression was that in Rinaldo every ritornello, every aria seemed to be on a larger scale. By comparison with the French, it sprawled. I imagined Rameau in Hippolyte thinking: “I need time for the divertissements, so no indulgences for the singers; let’s just get on with it!” And from my slight acquaintance with Gluck, I think he was another whom, in his Paris operas, was inclined to just get on with it –unlike Mozart and his ‘too many notes.’ Since I love Handel and Mozart, I cannot think the sprawl-less French way was superior. Just different in its attractions. Next I really must acquaint myself with the operas of Donizetti (and Meyerbeer).

  3. says

    I have not yet had the opportunity to see the Bolena, and am even more curious at this point, one can learn much from a good performance as a bad one. I think your point about disconnect, that any opera professional would notice of who can and cannot do these roles justice, puts into words something that I hadn’t been able to express. There is a great need for great singers in every voice type and part in opera, however where those voices go is often misunderstood, or (falsely believed) open to various opinions.
    My personal favorite is an old VHS I have of Olivia Stapp singing Bolena from the 80’s, there was a singer who not only had a true understanding of the role and of her place on stage, but also a connection with her chest voice which is frankly needed for these roles.

    • says

      Thanks, Daniel. I think people often misunderstand the kind of thing I and others say about a performance like this. I’m certainly not saying that Netrebko is a bad singer. Just that she shouldn’t be doing this role.

      And thanks for mentioning Oliva Stapp. I remember her. Don’t think I saw her as Anna Bolena. Would she have done it at City Opera, as second cast to Beverly Sills? Anyhow she was just as you describe.

  4. says


    As an erstwhile writer (and occasional critic) myself, I greatly enjoyed comparing your critique of Bolena with that which appeared in the New York Times. It made me wonder whether or not you and Mr. Tommasini were attending the same performance! That being said, I believe that your take on the evening’s events to be the more convincing argument, whereas Mr. T’s comments were highly generalized and cast most of the failings of the piece (the few that were mentioned) upon the leadership of the orchestra, with little negative commentary on the quality of the voices. In fact, he praised the tenor whom you sufficiently scathed for his inability to handle the tessitura of the role.

    It seems that Gelb and Co. are aiming at “star-quality” rather than finding the right voice for the role. Of course that would fit well within the confines of his former employment. Netrebko is certainly a very fine singer, but to put her in an inappropriate role is unfair to both the artist and the composer.

    Of course this only makes me wish harder that I lived closer to NY (rather than in Iowa) so that I could experience all of this first-hand. The closest that we get in Dubuque is the occasional theatrical broadcast. At least we have that.

    • says

      I think you might find two views of this performance, broadly speaking. People very much oriented toward opera as it is now might find a lot to like in the performance. People with some historical knowledge of opera singing in this style -/ and who know the opera well — might not be so pleased.

      The conductor was quite weak. Tony and I would agree on that. Though after a full evening of slack and sloppy leadership, he did get the orchestra to play the rhythm at the start of Netrebko’s final aria with quite a lot of bite.

      Hard to imagine, though, why anyone could give the tenor a pass for his woeful high Cs. Or not notice that the audience barely applauded after his first aria.

      My wife Anne Midgette, in her Washington Post reviews, raises a worthy point. Singers in past generations got far more mentoring in all aspects of their work — and especially style — than singers do now. Callas was trained to sing bel canto repertoire by Tulio Serafin, Italy,s leading conductor. When Tito Gobbi auditioned, as an young but established professional, for Serafin at the Rome Opera, he was told that he’d have to stop performing. Instead, he’d basically live at the Rome Opera for two years, observing rehearsals and performances, and being mentored by Serafin and other conductors and coaches. When Regina Resnik sang Fidelio for the first time, she was coached for three months by Bruno Walter, one of the world’s top conductors.

      This is not to say that everything was perfect in the past. The famous Callas Bolena performance, recorded live, had a very rough tenor and a bass who sounds like he’d lost his voice. And the opera was drastically cut. Nor is the orchestra even remotely close to the Met orchestra in polish and finesse. But still the whole thing, even the bass, comes across with a fiery conviction that the Met didn’t even approach..