Kneeling on stage after completing a heart-rending aria about her childhood home, Anna Netrebko felt the tumultuous applause wash over her _ and smiled.
It was a break in character for the tragic heroine of Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," but a forgivable one. Netrebko knew she was scoring a huge success in her most challenging role yet on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
Monday was opening night of the company's 2011-12 season. It marked the first time the Russian soprano had sung at an opening, and also the first time the Met had ever presented Donizetti's 1830 masterpiece about the ill-fated second wife of King Henry VIII.
"Anna Bolena's" late addition to the repertory is puzzling in one sense, since it's a wonderful opera, full of glorious melodies and dramatically charged scenes. But it requires a soprano of rare vocal and acting ability _ such as Maria Callas, who reintroduced the work to modern audiences in 1957 at Milan's La Scala.
Netrebko, always a naturally charismatic presence on stage, has now at age 40 grown into the vocal demands of the role. Her dark, syrupy, slightly melancholy tone has deepened and taken on more power, without any noticeable loss of lyric freedom at the top of her range. In fact, she has worked hard to cultivate a respectable trill _ something she was criticized for lacking in earlier forays into the bel canto repertory.
So she can melt our hearts one moment with a soft high C of great delicacy, then pin us to backs of our seats the next with a ferocious outburst of notes cascading over more than an octave.
That mournful song about her past, "Al dolce guidami castel nation" ("Lead me to the dear castle where I was born"), accompanied by English horn, is part of the opera's concluding scene in which Anna's mind wanders as she prepares to meet the executioner's ax. But hearing offstage revelry as Henry weds her successor, Jane Seymour (Giovanna in the opera), restores her wits, and she denounces them in a fiery finale, "Coppia iniquia" ("Wicked couple"), which Netrebko delivers with dazzling virtuosity.
Although she sang the role for the first time just last spring in Vienna, Netrebko has already put her stamp on it. One particularly telling moment comes at the end of Act 1, when Henry has ordered Anna and several other characters thrown into prison.
He tells her that a panel of judges will weigh the evidence against her _ and the realization that her fate is sealed begins to sink in.
"Giudici! ... ad Anna!" ("Judges! For Anna!") she cries. Then she repeats the same lines _ spoken more than sung _ and finally turns the words around, "Ad Anna! Giudici!" Many sopranos spit out the words in defiance, but Netrebko makes us feel her terror at what they imply.
Her final "Giudici" is delivered in a pleading near-whisper, as she looks her unforgiving husband in the eyes.
It must be said that Netrebko got off to a somewhat rocky start, perhaps because of first-night nerves, with an opening aria that lacked ideal precision. The same was true of mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, who began shakily as Giovanna. But the two of them brought down the house in their Act 2 scene together, when Giovanna confesses that she is Anna's rival and begs her forgiveness. And Gubanova won a deserved ovation for her final aria, vainly pleading with Henry to spare Anna's life.
Matching Netrebko in force of personality, bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov made Henry a figure of insistent romantic ardor with Giovanna and unremitting hostility with Anna. His booming voice lacked a bit of heft at the lower end of his range, but it hardly mattered.
As the hapless Percy, Anna's former lover _ and possibly husband _ tenor Stephen Costello sang with fervent lyricism and coped extremely well with the many daunting high notes in the role. Mezzo Tamara Mumford showed off her luscious, ripe voice in the "trousers" role of Smeaton, the page whose infatuation with Anna gives Henry the pretext he needs to plot her doom.
Marco Armiliato conducted the orchestra with a light touch, but his pacing sometimes sagged and took the tautness out of the drama.
The efficient production by David McVicar keeps the action flowing, with Robert Jones' bland sets moving in, out, up and down to allow quick scene changes. Jenny Tiramani's painstakingly created costumes look like authentic 16th century garments.
An attempted "coup de theatre" at the very end seems beside the point _ after Anna exits through her prison doors, the stage sinks to reveal a masked executioner standing above and awaiting her arrival. Then a silky red curtain (suggesting blood?) splashes down across the proscenium.
McVicar is set in future seasons to direct the two other Donizetti operas that make up the so-called "three Tudor queens" trilogy _ "Maria Stuarda" and "Roberto Devereaux."
Netrebko initially was planning to sing all three but changed her mind. For Anna, this "Anna" is triumph enough.