Friday, November 5, 2010
Opera review: Anna Bolena at Winspear Opera House in Dallas
Stephen Costello as Lord Percy truly is in a class of his own, and he is the main reason that I recommend seeing this production.
I recommend Anna Bolena (presented by Dallas Opera at Winspear Opera House through November 14). It is not perfect, but it has so much going for it that I do think you should attend. What is the main reason? Stephen Costello.
This opera, which had its premiere in Milan back in 1830, is not one that is frequently performed. The last time the Dallas Opera tackled this opera was back in 1975. I use the word tackle because it is not an easy opera. Musically, it is as good as it gets, but it requires certain vocal abilities that only world-class trained voices can tackle.
Why? Whoever plays Lord Percy must have a tenor voice of nearly impossible heights. Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn) has copious and extensive arias requiring a tremendous amount vocal gymnastics. Jane Seymour must plunge into deepest notes and, a couple of notes later, hit piercingly high ones. Smeton, a young man, must be played by a woman in order to achieve the vocal requirements of the score, yet still must convince us that we are watching and hearing a young man singing. Henry VIII requires a bass voice, yet it needs to be a voice that almost comes across as if it were a baritone and at times nearly a tenor. Casting this opera must be a nightmare.
Fortunately, Dallas Opera has deep enough pockets to bring to the Dallas-area world class singers and they are all assembled for this production. Seldom will you have a confluence of world-renowned talent under one roof. And, at three hours, you get more then your money's worth of jaw-dropping and amazing vocal performances.
The story line is quite good, even though the opera itself takes some historical liberties. The political and amorous intrigue that leads Henry VIII to replace his wife Anne Boleyn with Jane Seymour is very tragic. There are enough twists and turns to keep the audience fascinated for the full run of the opera. We all know before we go in that Anne Boleyn will end up dead, but the plot twists and turns in the libretto still manage to build enough suspense to keep our interest. I do not wish to reveal the details for I do not like to divulge spoilers, but suffice to say the story is not boring in the least.
Stephen Costello as Lord Percy, Anna's former lover who still has intense feelings for her, is the reason to go see Anna Bolena. He has performed in all three of Donizetti Tudor operas: Maria Stuarda, Roberto Deveraux, and now Anna Bolena. He has become an expert in portraying both the musical and acting requirements of these Donizetti pieces. He was absolutely stunning in his portrayal as the lead Greenhorn in the world premiere opera Moby Dick earlier this year. To hear him sing is to hear magic. His tenor has an expressivity that can't be defined. His voice has a musicality that is stirring. He can hold a note and, at the same time, express love. A few moments later, he will hit the same note but now express sorrow or despair. The texture and depth of his vocal abilities is beyond description. Add to this an acting ability that would be the envy of any Broadway or movie star and you have a combination unlike any other. He truly is in a class of his own, and he is the main reason that I recommend seeing this production. To be in the presence of such greatness is both humbling and inspiring.
So how are the rest of cast and the production? They are superb, excellent, okay, and not so good. If there is a problem in this production, it is in the direction. The director at times creates genius compositions but it feels as if he doesn't know what blocking to give the principals. They too frequently wander without any motivation to their movement. It also feels under-rehearsed. Considering the powerhouse talent on stage this is a bit of a surprise. There are some issues with the two leading ladies.
Anne Boleyn is incredibly complex. Hasmik Papian plays the titular role but there is no subtext to her performance. Her concern is in delivering pure notes. She is stunning to hear but quite passionless on stage. Based on her acting performance, I cannot see why Henry VIII, Lord Percy, or Smeaton all have such strong feelings about her. Her tragic end should be devastating for the audience. The music is there to make us cry. The libretto gives her choice and sumptuous words to sing, yet she leaves me feeling indifferent. By closing my eyes I hear it in her voice, but upon opening my eyes her face and body are for the most part quite expressionless. A few emotions kick in near the end but by then I have no personal connection to her so all I do is feel mild empathy.
Denyce Graves suffers from the same problem. Her Jane Seymour also leaves me cold. Vocally it is there, and, while at times she physically moves and makes a gesture, it reads as just that. She tilts her head to show us she has sorrow but I didn't feel it for it seems as if she is doing some blocking with no motivation. Henry VIII is madly in love with her. But why is this? The text tells us but the acting on her part gives us no indication as to why he feels that way about her.
Keep in mind that Denyce Graves is adored and practically worshiped the world over for her singing abilities. I am a huge fan of hers. There is no doubt that she possesses one of the greatest voices on the planet and is acknowledged as such. So for me to give her a negative critique almost hurts. There is no doubt that her voice is glorious. And if you have never heard her sing this is a chance you do not want to miss.
Both of these women also suffer from some terrible blocking given by the director. I know they are phenomenal singers but for them to stand immobile down center stage at nearly the edge of the stage is exceedingly boring to watch. They are so far downstage I thought that if they aren't careful they'll fall in the orchestra pit. Yes, they deserve to be center stage but surely the director could have told them to do something else besides stand there and sing. If this was a concert performance I'd be okay with it, but this is opera! A story MUST be told through acting.
Also, by standing in this position on the stage these two singers spend much of the time in front of the conductor; it looks as if they are depending heavily on Graeme Jenkins to guide them. None of the other performers depend so heavily on the conductor and the overall feeling, perhaps, is that this opera needed more rehearsal.
It also doesn't help that the director overlooks, with high degree of frequency, blocking clues which are built into the text. At one point Henry VIII basically tells Anne Boleyn to get away from him. She is already across the room and hasn't been near him during the scene. Anne Boleyn tells Jane Seymour to stand up – she already is and never is sitting, kneeling, or even in a bent posture. A command is made "don't look at me" – uh, she isn't! I can understand one or two flubs of this nature but it is constant and distracting. Keep in mind I'm not going off of what the supertitles are saying, I know enough Italian to understand what is being sung. The supertitles just confirm the errors in staging.
On the other hand, every male in this performance gives nuanced, sink your teeth into complex performances. It feels as if they have done the homework required to develop believable characters. They listen and react to each other. I have already mentioned the genius of Stephen Costello. It's worth commenting on the rest of the performers.
Oren Gradus, as Henry VIII, chews the scenery effectively. He is frightening, monstrous, alluring, charming, and dangerous. He keeps my attention constantly even when he is not singing. You can see the wheels in his mind working, plotting, conniving. Even though his vocal performance is stupendous it comes across as if he isn't even singing. Every note sung seems natural and is an extension of his character. You loathe him, yet you can clearly see why women are so attracted to him.
Elena Belfiore plays the youthful Smeton. Smeton has such a boyish crush on Anne Boleyn that it is his irresponsible actions that brings about her downfall. Elena plays him like a teenager full of extremes. She also gets one of the most lovely arias near the top of the show and makes it most memorable. With this said, there is some stage business that makes the scene confusing. He is supposedly strumming an oud, the orchestra is producing the sound of a harp, and later he is asked to play the lute again. This may not be confusing to many people but I happen to own two ouds and know how to play them. This is the first indication in that there is a lack of attention to detail in the staging of the opera.
Mark McCrory plays Lord Rochefort, Anna's brother. He is dynamic on stage with a rich and full voice. He gets swept in the political intrigue and conveys quite well the feeling of despair as his life also gets destroyed. Even though the role is smaller, he is memorable.
Aaron Blake plays Hervey, a court official. His role is exceedingly small when it comes to the amount of actual singing. This said, his presence is ominous and he causes such an impact that he infuses dread into the audience every time he appears on stage. He finally gets to truly sing near the end. All I can say is WOW! He is someone to keep an eye on.
Graeme Jenkins' musical direction is very fresh and inspired. He is able to build the suspense with the music and the tempos. As the plot on stage thickens, he astutely shifts the balance of the instruments to the more resonant and lower ranged part of the orchestra adding to the feel of danger.
Alexander Rom, the Chorus Master, is always 100% on point. The Dallas Opera chorus has developed a reputation as one of the best in the field under his direction. Anna Bolena gives the chorus quite a workout and collectively they become another character. The choral passages are goose bump-inducing.
The scenic design by Benoit Dugardyn is, in essence, a repeat of the other two Tudor Donizetti operas previously mounted by the Dallas Opera. It is a sky high semi-circle with three levels of balconies looking down on the stage. The effect created is that of people trapped. Add to this are large hinged screens that serve as movable walls. By moving the walls, different rooms and areas are created. It is oppressive and claustrophobic. The walls literally close in on the characters as their lives are destroyed. It is very effective. This said, as the walls move they are a bit noisy though not enough to add a new layer of aural tension. They either need to be oiled better or allowed to rumble loudly as they are shifted.
Wigs, lighting, and other technical aspects of the opera itself are executed to the high standards we expect from the Dallas Opera. If there is one misfire in this production it is the costumes.
The costuming is full of details, and spot-on perfect when it comes to the female leads and the chorus. The problem? The costumes do not serve the male characters at all. This story is about passion, yet the three males ensnared in Anna Bolena's life are dressed in cool grey-toned colors. As the emotions intensify, the costuming becomes more and more drab. It's as if the costuming plot is in reverse order of the story line itself. The designer also tends to choose fabrics with certain sheens and textures that don't seem right for the period. Some of the lines aren't quite right in the cut either. At one point I did a double take because the doublet worn by Lord Percy almost looks like a Members Only jacket. There seems to be a heavy 1980s influence in the choice of colors, textures, and sheen. For a moment I wondered if the period costumes are done during that decade, because frequently there is a spillover influence of modern style when recreating period clothing. An example is all the Western films of the late 1950s and '60s where women wore beehive hairdos.
Lastly, there is one serious technical glitch that must be corrected. When Act Two starts, there is a bit of distortion to the singing. It seems as if the voices are being amplified via a speaker that isn't functioning quite right. This is a BIG no-no. It happens mainly on stage right. When this happened at the performance I attended, everyone sitting around me looked at each other with a look of surprise, for it was our understanding that there are no speakers or microphones used at the Winspear when the Dallas Opera performs. People were asking each other in whispers if what we were hearing was a speaker gone awry. I did inquire after the show. From what I was informed, the orchestra uses some sort of speaker system to hear the singers on stage, and what we were hearing was some sort of feedback. This problem must be fixed.
Anna Bolena is a wonderful opera worth attending, especially since it's so rarely done. Is it a perfect show? No. But it is well worth going to hear Stephen Costello alone and, as a bonus, you also get to hear Denyce Graves, Oren Gradus and Hasmik Papian, Elena Belfiore, Mark McCrory, and Aaron Blake.
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