Hibla Gerzmava Rescues La Scala’s Problematic Anna Bolena

La Scala, Milan, March 31, 2017—Donizetti’s Anna Bolena has had a tumultuous history at La Scala. Triumphs include Maria Callas’ legendary live-recorded 1957 performance—an abiding benchmark interpretation. Scandals include Montserrat Caballé’s late-cancellation in 1982, when, for the first and only time at La Scala, an irate audience prevented the performance from going ahead. It’s therefore fitting that this latest performance—the first of La Scala’s bel canto project, which attempts to raise the profile of a lately-neglected portion of the repertoire—featured great singing and controversy alike.

True to form, there was curtain-call clamor this time around, much of which was reserved for Marie-Louise Bischofberger’s messy production—an import from Opéra National de Bordeaux. Bischofberger provides little in the way of set, save for a quadriform opening, framing pointless images such as moody skylines, unidentifiable edifices, and a murder of crows. Incongruous costumes range from Elizabethan garb to a blingy monstrosity of a fur-lined coat for Enrico VIII. A young girl and two very large dogs, both of which make recurring cameo appearances, do not hide that this is a production devoid of ideas.

If staging received the biggest boos, Carlo Colombara came a close second. While his rough-and-ready delivery made for an appropriately brutish Enrico, the bass’ coarse singing was a woeful match for Donizetti’s sparkling vocal lines. Sonia Ganassi gave a heart-on-sleeve account of Seymour, but she has lost some of her former sheen, and sounded uneven and bland.

Martina Belli and Mattia Denti were solid if unremarkable as Smeton and Rochefort respectively. Piero Pretti’s unaffected Percy, Anna’s tortured suitor, was somewhat better. If there is a touch of rasp in the tenor’s bright, full voice, his sound is particularly interesting above the passaggio. Pretti tossed out top notes in cabalettas with little apparent difficulty; his high-D in “Nel veder la tua costanza” was a treat.

The success or failure of Anna Bolena rests on the delivery of the title role, and Hibla Gerzmava’s vivid, mercurial portrayal made for a triumphant house debut. The soprano pairs musicality with fine technique: she was able to morph from rage to steely tenacity, for example, on the held note that connects cries of “Guidici ad Anna” to “Ah! Segnata è la mia sorte”. In the mad scene finale she provided luminous delicacy in “piangete voi”, caressing triplets and trills in “Al dolce guidami”, and dazzling acrobatics in “Coppia iniqua”. Shortly after, she was showered with cheers.

In contrast, conductor Ion Marin (standing in for Bruno Campanello) was volleyed with boos, which seemed unwarranted when the playing had been so dynamic and colorful. The excellent chorus was tight and direct. A mixed performance, then, but with plenty to enjoy.