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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 13 OCTOBER 2011 — "Who are you bringing this time," asked Ken, "your wife or your mistress?"

"They’re working that out now between themselves," I replied.

Ken the Socialist and I were once again standing in the plaza in front of the Metropolitan Opera as the audience arrived for the annual Opening Night Gala. Ken had already done his duty to his class alongside the red carpet, heaping imaginary scorn upon the industrialists, investment bankers, Martha Stewart and other exploiters of the masses who trod across it. He rejoined the lovely Mrs. Socialist, two other friends and me, clearly satisfied with his work.

My companion this evening was The Lady in Black. She was not present during the national anthem, which we all stood to sing, Ken’s voice climbing over those around him. She was not present as the Swarovski crystal chandeliers started to rise and dim. She appeared and was in her seat as the lights were nearly extinguished.

"I was the last one in," she reported, tying her previous record. As the conductor, Marco Armiliato, took the podium and the orchestra began the overture, The Lady in Black leaned over and asked, "What opera is this?"

The opera was Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, which was having its premier at the Met — not merely the premier of a new production, but the premier of the piece itself, which had debuted in 1830. As Mick Jagger said when The Rolling Stones performed at the Super Bowl forty years after they were first available for the gig, "Everything comes to he who waits." Singing the title role this evening was Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano who at long last, after the era dominated by the Three Tenors (Dare we say that dominance was only maintained by two of them?), has given the opera world something it sorely missed: a woman as good looking, talented and grand (even in real life) as any performer can be — which is to say, a true show-them-what-you’ve got prima donna turned reigning diva.

The libretto very loosely tells the story of the downfall of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. In the opera, her foil is her lady in waiting, Jane Seymour (here called Giovanna), sung this night by another Russian, the mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova.  Anna does not know that Giovanna is the mistress of the king and the woman he is plotting to make queen of England in her place. Giovanna is tortured by a bad conscience throughout, giving her more depth than Anna, whose despair is externally driven — by the king, who is done with her. During their times on stage together, Gubanova held her own against Nebtrebko, sometimes taking advantage of her deeper, sonorous voice to pull the drama and attention in her direction. It made for some wonderfully energized moments.

The score shows why Donizetti was the necessary precursor of Verdi and Puccini. You can hear in the highly agreeable score the origins of the later maestros’ musical styles. Its challenge in performance comes from the fact that it is at least thirty minutes too long for its plot, which lumbers through many internal rumblings, a bit of unnecessary delirium and other contrivances dropped along the path from royal marriage to headsman’s sword. I found myself soon ignoring the subtitles, the story too hopelessly stalled to bother with the text of what was being sung at the moment.

The production, by David McVicar, is monochromatic save mainly for bursts of red that foreshadow the fate of Anne. Every detail is calibrated to work together. Even two gray dogs in a crowd scene are coordinated with the set and costumes.

At intermission, The Lady in Black said, "It’s boring. We all know how it ends." She disappeared toward the VIP section, where she spent most of the intermission with people she knows. Ken the Socialist treated me to a glass of Champagne and said, "In preparation, I listened to four recordings of the opera.  In two, the soprano hit a high note at the end, and in two, she came in low."

"Who went high?" I asked.

"Sutherland and Sills." Ken was visibly pleased. The left wing had again crushed the right with the hammer of substantive knowledge. What it would do with the sickle of self-contradiction is anybody’s guess.

After intermission, it took a long time for Giovanna to reveal her betrayal to Anna, for false testimony to get to the kangaroo court that convicts Anna of adultery and worse and for Anna to walk toward her death. For the final scene, McVicar used the Met’s structural tour de force — its vertically moving stage.  In the past, on rising up, the stage had taken Tosca to the scene of what she was sure was the mock execution of her lover, Mario.  On descending during the final moments of Götterdämmerug, it had dragged Valhalla to burning ruin. Here it ascended to take Anna to her fate, then gave us a view of the headsman standing above as Netrebko at long last hit that final note — coming in low. The curtain came down, waving in scarlet red as if a turbulent sea of blood.

In all, especially considering that the Donizetti work was one that the Met had kept on its to-do list for 128 years, it had been an exciting night at the opera. Even the moment near the end when, during a passionate Netrebko solo, a disturbance almost broke out after some idiot high up in family circle took a call on a mobile phone somehow added to the experience. And we had all got to the rare treat to see and hear something old and respected that had never been done here before.

As the audience streamed slowly down the stairs of the tiered lobby, it erupted into cheers and applause as the cast members walked through, still in costume. They formed a line on the terrace and took their bows for the people seated outside who had watched for free on a giant video screen. It was a superb, egalitarian touch on a night that, after all, marks the unofficial start of the social season.

And because that was so, for those who paid for it, there followed a gala dinner in tents in Damrosch Park. My group had a reservation for the front table at Bar Boulud, across the street. While I waited on the plaza for the others, one man near me said to his friend, "The final note was an E-flat. I was waiting to see if she would take it high like — I’m trying to remember."

"Sutherland and Sills," I interjected.

The two men, clearly impressed with my knowledge, thanked me and left. As Ken reminds me, socialists are sure that we capitalists survive by exploiting and plundering the achievements of others.


Alan Behr is a partner in the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. He last on wrote on Allan C. Hutchinson's recent book Is Eating People Wrong? and the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault scandal in America for Culturekiosque.

Headline image: Anna Netrebko as Anne Boleyn in Donizetti's Anna Bolena 

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