I watched this on a whim after going through the Met’s Maria Stuarda on DVD again. I had only ever heard Anna Bolena in audio form before, an older recording with Beverly Sills and Shirley Verrett in the two main roles (Anna and Giovanna). Anna Netrebko and Beverly Sills are apples and oranges in a lot of ways. Netrebko has a sumptuous voice, but I have never really warmed to her acting – this is weird, but I find I often prefer to listen to her sing rather than watch her because often her face is so oddly immobile. Not all the time, but enough that you just want to ask her to furrow her brow, just a little, to show that she can, you know? Sills, on the other hand, could sound shrill sometimes, especially later in her career, but she inhabited those Donizetti queens. Verrett, too – the scene in Part II when Anna and Giovanna figure out what the score is and Giovanna feels awful and Anna forgives her is dynamite on that old recording. (It’s the one with the London Symphony conducted by Julius Rudel, from 1972).
This production, by Eric Génovèse, is from the Vienna State Opera, filmed in 2011. It reminded me of the Met’s Maria Stuarda, in that it’s a very lightly abstracted version of the ostensible setting. Everyone is wearing clothes appropriate to the 1530s (and, early on, the women walk around with their hands clasped in front as if they’ve just stepped out of a mid-Tudor portrait) and there’s nothing to indicate that anything weird is afoot. Halls look like halls, there are trees in the background during the hunt scene to indicate that we’re in a forest, etc. The interiors are dark and cavernous-looking: the aforementioned scene where Anna and Giovanna have their conversation takes place in a dim space that doesn’t appear to have any windows. Fair enough, even though occasionally, e.g. in parts of the overture, the darkness seems appropriate to the story but also at odds with the sprightliness of the music.
But there are a few nice visual touches. At the very end of the opera, Anna doesn’t collapse in a faint or get the vapors or whatever it is that Donizetti originally wanted the character to do. Rather, she lies down and draws a piece of red fabric over her head, while her little daughter Elizabeth silently looks on – it’s a vivid evocation of Anne’s execution. There are also a few slightly squicky visual touches. At the beginning of the third scene of Act I, Anna’s brother Lord Rochefort (Dan Paul Dumitrescu) at one point pulls her cloak off and grabs her in a way that seems just over the line into icky. Anna at this point has just said “stop, that’s enough” in a way that doubles as both a “stop, I don’t want to hear about Percy anymore” and “stop touching me” – given that Anne Boleyn was in fact accused of incest with her own brother, I see where they got the idea, but still. Ew.
As I listened to this, there were moments when I was convinced that Elina Garanca (Giovanna) was the best thing in it. The way they did her makeup made her look like a Fox News anchor (it’s the combination of fair hair and very bright operatic rouge and pink lipstick) but that is not Garanca’s fault. The aforementioned scene that ends with the “va, infelice, e teco reca” duet was big and exciting (though it’s funny, I remember from the Sills/Verrett recording thinking that the two women were still angry at each other by the end of it, and I don’t get that impression here); another favorite was towards the end, in the last section of Act 2 scene 2, where Giovanna has her “per questa fiamma indomita” aria (those low notes!) and the section afterward, where Giovanna is leading the court/chorus in pleading with Henry to be merciful to Anna.
Then again, Netrebko can draw out the coloratura like nobody’s business, which she does to great effect in the opera’s final scenes, e.g. the “piangete voi” bit in the finale. My favorite parts of her performance were those where Anna was angry – there are some bits of “coppia iniqua” in the last scene that have some real bite to them, as well as sections of the last scene of Act I, where Anna is angry about submitting to unjust accusations (though the anger often fades into pleading or sadness).
Several of the smaller roles were also well done. Elisabeth Kulman was very effective as Smeaton, Anna’s pageboy. She isn’t trying with the fake lute playing in the first scene, but she is definitely trying with the singing. The scene in Act I where Smeaton is mooning after Anna (“É sgombro il loco . . . Ah! parea che per incanto”) was great – you feel kind of bad for the poor kid, especially since he gets led off to execution in the end.