By Alan Behr
NEW YORK, 13 OCTOBER 2011 "Who are you bringing this time,"
asked Ken, "your wife or your mistress?"
"Theyre 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, Kens
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 Donizettis 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-youve 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 headsmans 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, "Its 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.
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 anybodys 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 Mets 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
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 Im trying
"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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