David McVicar’s lush, atmospheric production of Donizetti’s bel canto masterpiece Anna Bolena opened the Met 2011 season with a bang. Detailed costume and stage design, meticulous direction and brilliant voices combine to recount the gripping tale of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry the Eighth, in the final days of her reign and life. Under the skillful baton of Marco Armiliato, the MET Orchestra sets the tone from the first bars of the opening Sinfonia – melancholy, brooding and troubled, it is immediately clear that we are in for something serious. Beautiful, but serious.

Opera superstar Anna Netrebko gives a moving portrayal of the doomed queen. She is the picture of disillusioned royalty in “Non v’ha sguardo”, recounting how she regrets ambitiously seeking the throne and giving up love. Throughout the work Netrebko is called upon to perform aria upon difficult aria in a role that requires enormous stamina. One of the high points of this massive undertaking is her duet with Jane Seymour (Ekaterina Gubanova) in the second act. Here, Anne learns not only that her fate is sealed, but also that her friend Seymour has been unwittingly instrumental in her demise. Netrebko vacillates beautifully between despair, disdain, shock, disbelief, compassion and anger in an intense and vocally demanding number. Her mad scene in the tower, “Piangete voi”, is no less gripping: wits and hair undone, Anne is vulnerable and lost, rendered insane by grief, betrayal and loss.

Ekaterina Gubanova, as Jane Seymour, introduces herself as a voice to be reckoned with (as well as Anne’s rival for Henry’s heart) in her opening aria “Ella di me, sollecita”. Later, as she begs Henry to pardon Anne in “Per questa fiamma… Ah! Pensate che rivolti”, she never falters or struggles. Her voice is rich, powerful and her capacity of legato seems bottomless. She depicts Seymour’s terrible struggle between love and loyalty wonderfully, giving her character depth and complexity. Lascivious and larger than life, Ildar Abdrazakov is a physically and vocally imposing Henry the Eighth, ruthlessly tightening the noose around Anne’s neck to make room for his new partner. Tenor Steven Costello, playing Percy, Anne’s first love, is heroic and passionate, conquering coloratura in “Ah! Così nei di ridenti”, and floating beautiful high notes in piano during “Vivi tu, te ne scongiuro”.

Contralto Tamara Mumford also makes a more-than-noteworthy showing as a young musician secretly in love with the queen. Mumford impresses with the seamlessness and flexibility throughout every area of her amazing range. Her “Deh! Non voler costringere” is so musically sung that it seems a shame to have it interrupted, and “E sgombro il loco” is stylistically rendered with the utmost sensitivity (as well as enormous breath control).

Mr McVicar’s realization is pleasing to the eye, yet dark and melancholy. Period costumes in black, beige and cream with red notes are set against a regal backdrop. Moreover, his stage direction is clearly focused, and well executed by the characters. There is no lack of clarity in their intention, and their characters are clearly developed. This nuanced attention to role, dramatic arc and costuming gives weight and clarity to this landmark production, which was and will certainly be warmly received by audiences past and present.