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Culture Reviews
The Met: Anna Boleyn live in HD
35 mm 
Anna Boleyn / By G. Donizetti /
By Martin Richardson
Going to the cinema to watch an opera might seem a somewhat unlikely activity, especially here in Moscow where top-notch live performances are not exactly thin on the ground. But the city’s first experiments with screenings from New York’s Met Opera suggest the idea could be a big hit. Admittedly, opening night was something of a nailed-on crowd-pleaser. The latest golden girl of Russian opera, Anna Netrebko, taking on the title role in Donizetti’s Anna Boleyn, was always going to appeal to audiences starved of opportunities to hear one of their own perform on the local stage (pops recitals at Dom Muzyki, usually at exorbitant prices, don’t quite hit the spot for the cognoscenti). And, with a couple of other rapidly emerging singers on the playbill as well, it was little surprise that the main hall at 35mm was sold out.

Initially the experience is slightly disconcerting. Footage of a distant theatre filling up, punctuated by discreet messages from the sponsors: this isn’t quite the muted hubbub of an evening at the Bolshoi. And the audience seemed slightly unsure how to behave. From the mixture of ‘Night at the opera’ over-dressing to ‘Saturday night at the movies’ casual in the cloakrooms to a touching uncertainty over whether or not it was appropriate or ridiculous to applaud performers singing their hearts out over the ocean, it felt like most of us were learning our cues as well.

Regardless of the background, however, the show’s the thing. And the performance did not disappoint. Donizetti’s opera was his first big hit – at the 35th time of asking – and manages to wrap up the final days of ill-fated Henry VIII’s second wife in a dynamic and dramatic evening. OK, so at times the history is a bit creaky around the edges, but in effect this is from the same cultural stable as “Shakespeare in Love” – only tragic rather than comic. Nifty story-telling and some virtuoso performances make the whole thing hang together, assuming you’ve got a cast which is up to the job. And the Met has: Netrebko was always going to be the star of the show, tackling one of the most demanding roles with the kind of diva attitude that ensured she was always the focus of attention when on stage. As well as the vocal pyrotechnics demanded of a coloratura role like this, she also brought her character to life effectively – another detail of the opera-singer’s craft overlooked by those celebrity “greatest hits” recitals in international concert halls.

However, even if she took top billing, Netrebko was hardly alone in impressing. Bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov was a powerful Henry VIII, scowling and grimacing his way through the performance with just the right level of affronted megalomania. Yekaterina Gubanova, as the queen-in-waiting Jane Seymour, also gave a strong performance as a woman torn between her love for Henry and her loyalty to Anna, and there was much to enjoy in the ardent Richard Percy, sung by Stephen Costello.

One bonus for cinema-goers was a detailed presentation of the performance – in expat-friendly English which was easy enough to follow despite the simultaneous translation. Amid various fluffy, interval-fillings interviews with cast members there were more interesting segments about the attempts to render the costumes historically accurate. This is no easy task: representations of Henry’s court are few and far between, and most of them are head-and-shoulders portraits. Rather than tumble into the rumbustious, red-tunic regality of popular cliché, the production was largely decked out in somber tones – although historical accuracy was dampened by a chorus which represented the diversity of contemporary New York more than the rarified environment of Tudor England. But such nit-picking was swept away in a powerful performance which saw the evening fly by.

In the year that Bolshoi is set to finally re-open its main stage, some may question whether Moscow needs to import opera in this way. But the evidence of the first of the six screenings planned from the Met suggests that the answer is a resounding “yes”. After all, it’s cheaper than getting to New York … and it might just inspire people to explore the cultural thrills to be found in the city’s own theatres.

The Met: Live in HD is screened at four Moscow cinemas (and one in St. Petersburg). The next scheduled performance is on Oct. 29, with a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Details at: www.coolconnections.ru/ru/projects/project/76-metopolitan-opera-don-juan.

16.10.11
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