Saturday, December 1, 2012

You can never have too much Anna Bolena

You might remember my dear friend Bocca L. Lupo (Bucky to his friends) recently wrote a few thoughts about two Anna Bolena recordings he'd enjoyed on a road trip--one going and one coming back.  He has since penned a few thoughts on even more Anna Bolena recordings in his vast audiophile library:

The earliest recording of the three is a 1958 air check of a RAI Milano performance featuring Leyla Gencer as Anna, Giulietta Simionato as Giovanna, Plinio Clabassi as Enrico, Aldo Bertocci as Percy, and Anna Maria Rota as Smeton. The release I auditioned is on Opera d'Oro. The recorded sound is paper thin, particularly in the opening scene, leading me to think that the tape had been used many times before the off-air recording was made. The quality improves slightly later on, but climaxes are severely congested, and the overall constricted sound makes it difficult fairly to judge the true quality of the singing.  Ms. Gencer is accurate and portrays a charming Anna. It may be the poor recording, but much of her coloratura work has a Lily Pons/Mady Mesple "little girl" quality to the sound. Her Anna comes across as nearing middle age and charming, but I did not hear the fire of a wronged woman or the pain of an abandoned lover. Simionato's Giovanna is a mirror of her 1957 La Scala performance with Callas, which I discussed after my last road trip. In the Act II duet with Anna, she clearly portrays Seymour's trepidation and anguish. Throughout she is in good voice, accurate, and very musical.

Speaking of that great duet between the present and future queen, it is unfortunate that so many small cuts are taken. Donizetti, in this piece, expanded on lessons he had learned from Rossini and Mayr in developing the type of recitative that moves from what is effectively secco (strictly chordal accompaniment) to accompagnato (with melodic flow in the vocal line and orchestra). In this scene, the flow is seamless, and the melodic sections are placed to highlight the emotions of both Anna and Giovanna most effectively.

Plinio Clabassi, the Enrico, is a serviceable bass, and he opens the Act I finale with appropriate regal authority. His part is much cut. Aldo Bertocci, the Percy, is accurate, and his voice, while not all that attractive, is well managed. The Smeton, Anna Maria Rota, is not impressive, but, after the cuts, she has so little to sing it would be difficult to gain an impression. Maestro Gavazzeni conducts a performance similar to the 1957 Scala. There is again no Sinfonia. The RAI Milano chorus and orchestra are quite typical of the time, and it sounds as if there was little rehearsal time: things get rather scrappy from time to time. Recommended as an opportunity to hear Gencer as Anna and for Simionato.

Next is a 1968/69 Decca recording with Elena Suliotis as Anna, Marilyn Horne as Giovanna, Nicolai Ghiaurov as Enrico, John Alexander as Percy, and Janet Coster as Smeton. Silvio Varviso conducts the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Opera Orchestra. The recording, made in the Vienna State Opera's Sofiensaal, has the bright, big sound typical of Decca in that era, with the voices forward and the orchestra and chorus slightly recessed. There are small cuts - a measure or two here, a measure there - throughout. Many of these cuts were apparently standard practice, because they appear in the Callas, the Gencer, the Sutherland (which is generally more complete), and this recording.

Ms. Suliotis' characterization of Anna is credible and appropriate. This Anna is feminine, youthful, strong-willed, and truly triumphant in the final scene. Until hearing her Anna, I had known Suliotis only from the (in)famous Decca recording of Verdi's Nabucco released in 1965. Her Abigaille in that recording is legendary.  That she was deserving of her (admittedly short lived) celebrity is borne out by the two recordings. In both she is accurate, the voice generally under excellent control, with seamless transitions between the registers. What is impressive is how different the characters are between the Verdi and the Donizetti. Her Abigaille is a scenery-chewing firebrand: anyone would be cowed by her "Prode guerrier." Yet her Anna is feminine and extremely touching in her trepidation at the end of Act I (for example, her "Giudici? Ad Anna?"). The aria finale is a triumph. Her diction is excellent throughout, and only occasionally does she lose control of what is a large but well-managed voice.

Horne starts out as a very feminine Giovanna, with none of the "butch bark" that affected her singing of lyrical parts in later years. In Act II she reverts to some over use of chest voice when articulating phrases, and the character becomes more stony. Her pleas for forgiveness in the great duet with Anna are affecting and seem to come from Giovanna's heart. As is often the case with Ms. Horne, there are many highly suspect vowels, particularly in and above the passaggio. It is, overall a good portrayal.

Ghiaurov's Enrico is a disappointment. It is beautifully sung in his immediately recognizable tone. His Italian diction is consistent with what I always hear from him: reasonably clear but hardly idiomatic. The performance is most accurate. But there is no Enrico. There is Nicolai signing Donizetti quite well, but there is no character portrayed. Yes, this is often a problem with studio recordings! His disdain for Anna, his lust for Seymour, and his anger at Smeton and Percy all are expressed in the same lovely stream of tone. Most unsatisfactory.

John Alexander is, as he always was in the theater and on record, reliable and accurate. While there is nothing really wrong with his portrayal, there isn't much real characterization, and I have to admit I always found his vocal quality rather utilitarian. Janet Coster, the Smeton, has a good voice and uses it effectively. She portrays the character's fearful excitement in the chamber scene, and the anguish in the confession to Anna is palpable. Varviso was at this time a highly experienced conductor with a wide repertoire. The performance is fleet where appropriate but never seems rushed. The orchestra and chorus are excellent. The Sinfonia is most exciting. Suliotis and Horne bring the performance to life; otherwise, it is clearly a very good studio recording, accurate and almost complete but lacking full dramatic fire.

In 1973, ABC Records recorded Bolena in London with Beverly Sills as Anna, Shirley Verrett as Giovanna, Paul Plishka as Enrico, Stuart Burrows as Percy, and Patricia Kern as Smeton. Julius Rudel conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and chorus. The performance is complete: although I did not check the entire recording against the score, all sections I did check had no cuts.

By 1973, Ms. Sills had thoroughly absorbed the "three queens" to creat technical and artistic excellence. Hers is a thoroughly satisfying portrayal of Anna. The extra fioriture and high notes she interpolates make musical and dramatic sense. The vocal production is amazingly free. Anna emerges as youthful, feminine, strong in her convictions. The finale is touching to the end: you hear Anna's exercise of self control and will power as she rises to the moral triumph of "Coppia iniqua." The finale of Act I is marvelously poignant, with the incredulous terror of "Giudici? Ad Anna?" made palpable by Sills' artistry. Some of the tone is occasionally held back in the mask, but generally the voice is open and free. Good (but not perfect) diction. All in all, I find it the most satisfying, vocally and dramatically, of the five Annas I auditioned. (Six years earlier, I'd had the privilege of singing in the chorus of a production of Les contes d'Hoffmann, starring Ms. Sills as the heroines. Ms. Sills was clearly a star, but she joked with us and approached everyone as colleagues. A true professional and a gracious woman. Oh, and an amazing singer!)

Shirley Verrett is the best of the Giovannas in the five recordings as well. A clear match for Anna, this Seymour is a woman of ambition yet she displays genuine regret and concern in the great duet, given absolutely complete in this recording. Ms. Verrett is in wonderful voice, giving character to every line on that miraculous stream of burnished tone. Excellent diction but with the usual Verrett vowel variations. Her interaction with the other singers is an object lesson in ensemble performance.

Paul Plishka as Enrico sings well, although there is a weakness in the lower register. The notes are there as they should be, the words are generally clear, but Enrico is nowhere to be heard. There is absolutely no difference in vocal performance between the wooing of Giovanna and the rejection of Anna. Again, a role well learned for the studio, but little drama in the performance.
Burrows as Percy sings well, enunciates clearly, and manages the register shifts well. This Percy has character, but the voice isn't Italianate at all. I'm not looking for squillo or slancio, but a bit more tang would be welcome. Nevertheless, this is a very good performance of the role, and burrows' ensemble work is exemplary. Patricia Kern as Smeton emerges as the most satisfying on the five recordings. The voice is creamy, with registers well integrated. She conveys the rash youth quite well, and stands out in the chamber scene as a real protagonist in the action. Her confession to Anna in the finale conveys genuine anguish. Maestro Rudel demonstrates why he was so in demand in the pit throughout his long career. Tempi are always appropriate, with much energy conveyed without rushing. The chorus and orchestra are splendid, if a bit recessed. Overall, an excellent studio recording.

In sum, for a live performance, despite the cuts and limited sound, go with Callas. For a compete version made in the studio, Sills is the clear winner. The ideal cast from the singers on all these recordings would be Sills, Verrett, Ramey, Raimondi, and Coster. Inasmuch as the Sills takes three out of five palms, it is the one I wouldn't be without.

I have not heard the Gruberova. I don't think her voice would be right for the part. [n.b. That never stopped her from singing anything!--Tam.]

Bocca L. Lupo

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