Of all the episodes in world history, few have excited such a feverish and enduring cultural fascination as the romantic, political, and religious tribulations of the court of King Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn, the king's second wife, exerts an especially powerful hold on the collective imagination: even some 500 years after she was sent to the Tower of London to be beheaded. In the past three years alone, she's been featured on television in The Tudors; on movie screens in The Other Boleyn Girl (in which she was portrayed by Natalie Portman); in Hilary Mantel's Man Booker Prize-winning bestseller Wolf Hall; in the cover art of a Courtney Love album; and in references on Ugly Betty and Gossip Girl. She may have lost her head, but Anne Boleyn lives on.
Now, at last, the queen makes her way to the Met, where Anna Netrebko sings the title role of Donizetti's Anna Bolena, which has its company premiere on Opening Night. It's the first part of a three-season unveiling of the composer's trilogy of so-called "Tudor" operas, each of which will be directed by David McVicar, who had a Met success with his 2009 production of Il Trovatore.
"All the historical figures in Anna Bolena are very recognizable, particularly to us, a British team," says McVicar, who is working with frequent collaborators Robert Jones (sets) and Jenny Tiramani (costumes). "This is part of our history. And certainly, when one considers the figure of Henry VIII, it's very interesting that this is not the obese tyrant we're so familiar with from a later period. This is still the virile lover, the strong, proud lion of the English monarchy, desperate to create an heir and failing to do so with Anne. And this is really the lynchpin of the story: Anne's inability to provide him with the male heir that he craves."
For Netrebko, the role provides the opportunity to perform in what she calls "one of the most beautiful operas ever written. It is very dramatic. For me as a singer, it has lots of challenges, and I will have to use all my skills, vocal technique, and knowledge to perform the role at the highest level." The diva already scored a major success in the role when she sang it in Vienna earlier this year. At the Met she'll be singing alongside Russian compatriots Ildar Abdrazakov as the king and Ekaterina Gubanova as her successor in royal matrimony, Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, as well as StephenCostello as Lord Percy. Marco Armiliato conducts and rising star Angela Meade steps into the title role in later performances.
If it has become common practice for many opera directors to stage productions in settings other than what's described in the score or libretto, McVicar, with Anna Bolena, goes in the opposite direction. For him, historical accuracy is paramount, particularly when it comes to the costumes. That's one reason he enlisted Tiramani, who is widely regarded as one of the world's foremost experts in 16th-century costuming. "She works as an historicist works," McVicar explains. "She's very, very interested in structure. She's interested in what underlies the costumes and how the underwear is historically correct, to give the correct shape to these costumes."
To achieve this kind of visual precision Tiramani has turned to the portraiture of Hans Holbein, Henry VIII's court painter, whose work has an almost photographic detail. But it's not just 16th-century imagery that inspires Tiramani; she also has direct experience with clothing from the era. "Jenny actually knows how these garments were put together," McVicar says. "She has examples in her house: and she will let you touch them if you're very, very lucky! One of the things that we're really trying to do is create the illusion that the 16th-century English court has come back to life."
For Netrebko, this has meant preparing in ways that go beyond studying the score. "I visited the Tower of London, where they have a letter with her writing, her signature, which was very interesting to see," the soprano recalls. "I think that a woman who makes men fall madly in love with her: enough to change a country's religion: she really has to be something special."
That's one reason why Netrebko was cast in the first place. "Peter Gelb was terribly excited by the idea of challenging Anna with this very demanding role," says McVicar, who first worked with Netrebko on his Covent Garden production of Rigoletto a few years ago. "I find her the most hard-working, delightful, enchanting colleague. She is a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice. But, better than that, she's a mensch."
Though his star and creative team are familiar, one thing that's new for McVicar is the bel canto genre itself. But the director sees clear parallels between Donizetti and the Baroque composers whose work he has made something of a calling card. "As a director, I'm always very, very interested in form," he says, "because I actually find form a very liberating thing. Donizetti is similar to Handel in that he takes the bel canto form, which is quite rigid sometimes, and explores every possible dramatic opportunity within it."
The end result is that the audience's attention should be squarely on the characters, particularly the title heroine. "She's a wonderful character," Netrebko says. "She has this incredible power. There are some people who have a power to make everything revolve around them, and that's what she did. She was very ambitious. She wanted power, she wanted to be a queen. She got it, but only for a very short time, and her drama is in how quickly everything ended for her."
McVicar agrees. "We're asked to be very sympathetic towards Anna in Anna Bolena," he says, "even though she herself realizes she's been paid in the same coin for usurping Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife. And, of course, to be a wife of Henry VIII is to risk as much as you gain. Donizetti is very even-handed, though, and he allows the characters to express their own points of view, from whichever perspective they are seeing the world."
Even-handed as he may have been, Donizetti was nevertheless bound by certain conventions of bel canto opera. Hence the obligatory: and spellbinding: tour-de-force mad scene that ends the opera. This may be the one element in which the production does not hew to historical reality. Although she relishes the vocal challenge of the mad scene, Netrebko nevertheless feels Anne Boleyn was far from crazy. "She's not like Lucia," she says. "She's mentally weak because of all the things that have happened to her, but underneath she was very strong. That's why I have such respect for this woman. She was very proud, and at the end, she was not scared: she even made jokes about her skinny neck! This is what I want to show. She was a queen, and she died as a queen."