OPERA REVIEW : Donizetti's Queen Dies a Pretty Death

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Our grandparents may have known something about Anne Boleyn, the tragic second wife of Henry VIII of England. But they didn't know, or care, a lot about "Anna Bolena," the opera that opened the San Francisco season this month.

Donizetti wrote his quintessentially Italian, shamelessly romantic version of Tudor history in 1830. The popularity of his ornate opus depended primarily on the availability of a virtuosic diva to enliven the florid ecstasies and fatal agonies of the title role. Guiditta Pasta sang the premiere, eventually followed by the likes of Giulia Grisi and Teresa Tietjens. Lofty names.

By the 1870s, however, tastes changed, divas declined and "Anna Bolena" was consigned to history book oblivion. For most impractical purposes, the opera didn't come back to life until 1957, when La Scala exhumed it as a vehicle for an ascending legend named Maria Callas.

Equally adept at coloratura flight and legato indulgence, Callas imbued the challenge with enormous pathos and unique grandeur. The succeeding decades brought at least two contenders of comparable splendor to the shaky operatic throne: Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills.

The Australian soprano contented herself with theatrical platitudes but excelled in heroic filigree. Her American rival put a smaller, thinner voice and an equally agile technique at the service of an extraordinarily poignant characterization.

And now we have Carol Vaness.

She is a marvelous singer--intelligent, sensitive and stylish. It seems safe to claim that no one in our time has sung a better Fiordiligi in Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte." She applies her spinto resources most adroitly to the music of Verdi and Handel. None of this predestines her for triumph, unfortunately, as a dramatic coloratura in the rarefied bel-canto repertory.

She sang Anna Bolena, on Sunday afternoon with obvious dedication and, despite some unaccustomed patches of dull and dry tone, with great skill. She exuded ladylike dignity, sustained verbal clarity, refused to distort or exaggerate. She kept every impulse, musical and theatrical, in proper perspective.

She floated, and shaded, a lovely line when the composer asked for it, got over the agitation hurdles with careful distinction, saved herself cannily for the great climaxes. Everything she did reflected good grammar and good taste.

But, while she earned continued admiration, she stopped no pulses, broke no hearts. She didn't--couldn't--simulate the searing and soaring passion of a Callas, the dazzling bravura of a Sutherland or the introspective eloquence of a Sills.

Vaness' performance grew in intensity as the opera progressed. Ultimately, however, it remained too pale for aesthetic comfort. This Anna went to her pretty death in the Tower of London marginally defiant, mildly sad and dubiously mad. It wasn't quite enough.

Lotfi Mansouri, impresario in residence, surrounded her with a generally gentle cast. Under the circumstances, that may have been perversely fitting.

Susanne Mentzer sang neatly and sweetly, a little edginess notwithstanding, as Giovanna (a.k.a. Jane) Seymour but showed little inclination for expressive flamboyance. Patricia Bardon offered little timbral contrast but considerable finesse as Smeton, the dangerously smitten page-boy who sings softly but carries a big lute.

Giuseppe Sabbatini introduced a lovely, impeccably poised tenorino quasi-bianco as Riccardo Percy. A couple of stratospheric climaxes threatened to cause him strain, but he offered ample compensation with extended high notes gracefully filed down to a shimmering thread. Scott Wilde blustered nicely as noble Rochefort, Dennis Petersen whined deftly as nasty Hervey.

Best of all, perhaps, Roberto Scandiuzzi brought an imposing presence and extraordinarily deep, dark, rolling tone to the mean-macho bravado of Enrico (a.k.a. Henry). One can imagine others projecting the King's lust and cruelty with broader strokes, but prosciutto doesn't seem to be basic to this artist's diet. It is reassuring to hear a basso at last whose bite is better than his bark.

Roberto Abbado (brother of Claudio) enforced crisp efficiency in the pit. John Copley kept the traffic moving adroitly on a stage handsomely if unimaginatively decorated 11 years ago by John Pascoe (picturesque sets) and Michael Stennett (period costumes).

Competence is alive and well at the War Memorial Opera House. Inspiration remains elusive.

* "Anna Bolena," presented by the San Francisco Opera, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Remaining performances tonight at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. $21-$125. (415) 864-3330.

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