Stephen Costello and Anna Netrebko
in Anna Bolena
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Stephen Costello and Anna Netrebko
in Anna Bolena
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
It's taken Gaetano Donizetti's Anna Bolena 181 years to get to the Metropolitan Opera, but Peter Gelb and company have finally made up for that missed opportunity by scheduling the work as the 2011-12 season opener, and by presenting a handsome David McVicar production that features Anna Netrebko, one of the house's favored sopranos, doing her utmost in the title role.

Within minutes of her only somewhat delayed arrival in Felice Romani's fictionalized-history narrative, Netrebko makes clear why any singing actress worth her vibrato wants to add the doomed second wife of Henry VIII (here played by the fine bass Ildar Abdrazakov) to her resume.

Moreover, any mezzo-soprano worth her staunch vocal cords would also eye the role of Jane Seymour (here called Giovanna), Anne Boleyn's successor, and Ekaterina Gubanova does entirely right by the part, as well.

The reason for their interest has to do with the opus's depiction of its focal female characters as wholly three-dimensional, and the complexities of this Anna and Giovanna are more than welcome as they vent their deep emotions to Donizetti's unflaggingly melancholy melodic music.

This is an Anna who immediately understands her husband has irrevocably repudiated her, even though she isn't an unfaithful spouse despite what hands-on-hips hubby Henry believes. But she does admittedly remain in love with Lord Richard (Stephen Costello, whose tenor is put to exquisite use). At the same time, Giovanna, waiting-lady to Anna, doesn't want to undercut her Queen, while confessing to having fallen for the fickle Henry, who's hoping for the male heir Anna hasn't given him.

The women's complicated relationship culminates in the beautifully tense second-act exchange "Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio," which is only one of the many Donizetti delights in a score, conducted here with lyrical vigor by Marco Armiliato. Another is what's come to be known as Anna's mad scene, in which she wavers between madness and lucidity. It's a walking-the-delicate line challenge that Netrebko negotiates with frightening ease before making an inspired thespian's gesture that signals her readiness to meet the man with the fatal axe.

The composer doesn't confine his gifts to Anna and Giovanna. For instance, he supplies a show-enhancing first-act quintet finale, and also comes up with a charming court folk ditty that court musician and Anna-smitten Smeaton (mezzo Tamara Mumford) does charmingly. However, the one character for whom Donizetti provides no aria is Henry.

The production also benefits from Robert Jones' set of grey walls and a palette of black-grey-and white interrupted only by a tall canopied blood-red bed (symbolic of Anne's future?) taking up much space in the Westminster Palace quarters to which Anna is confined. The stunning costumes are by Jenny Tiramani, who has Anna enter in a gown with sleeves cut to resemble angel wings. It's perhaps a symbol of how this whole enterprise truly soars.