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Bizet's 'Anna Bolena': delightful opera that tests a singer's range

The New York City Opera is now the only operatic show in town, due to the lamentable, and now acrimonious, state of affairs at the Met. The season opened with a two-week run of a new production of "The STudent Prince" and then got under way in more normal manner with "Anna Bolena." The Donizetti opera had provided Beverly Sills with one of her great triumps at the house. For this revival, the work had been double-cast in most roles, though Olivia Stapp and Samuel Ramey remained the Bolena and Henry VIII throughout.

I caught up with one of the later performances, when Patricia McCaffrey made her debut as Jane Seymour and Michele Molese took over the role of Percy. Donizetti's opera offers resounding opportunities for singing actors to turn the lines, melodies, and great stretches of sung dialogue into something compelling and memorable.

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Olivia Stapp used to sing at the City Opera as a mezzo. Then she went to Europe, became a soprano, and now returns in that vocal capacity. Anyone who heard her Donna Anna in San Francisco's "Don Giovanni" a few seasons back, or her Santuzza in "Cavalleria Rusticana" in Chicago, knows what Miss Stapp's voice has to offer -- a secure and blazing top but no great color, a somewhat breathy middle, and a nasal bottom.

The role of Bolena tests that entire range to the extreme, and in all but the topmost, Miss Stapp did not exactly pass with honors. Nor is she the sort of actress who cares to convey the meaning of every word, or who matches mood with vocal color, telling gesture, and an overall sense of histrionic vitality. Rather, she saves her energies for those stentorian (and eventually tedious) cries on high, with only the occasional hurled word or expansive gesture for variety.

Samuel Ramey sang Enrico (Henry) as gloriously as ever it will be vocalized these days -- in a bass that is flexible, pliant, and secure from ringing top to resonant bottom. While adequately characterized vocally, however, he did too little to convey the presence of the corpulent ruler of England.

What still sees to be missing at the company is guidance for the younger secondary singers, such a Kathleen Hegierski, whose Smeaton was an earnest attempt by a singer who is naive in matters histrionic. In the pit, Charles Wendelken-Wilson led a secure, supportive account of the score, high on lyricism , low in dramatic punch.

Jay Lansenger has restaged the Tito Capobianco production and managed to utterly confuse every entrance and most of the dramatic byplay.

Direction and setting undermined the new production of Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" as well. Bizet's first real hit is no "Carmen," and the plot is not "King Lear," but the melodies are lovely, offering three great singers a chance to dazzle on audience with vocal opulence.

At least this delightful opera -- ideal for the City Opera -- received quality treatment in the pit. Calvin Simmons, in his debut with the company, is an alert young conductor who knows how to keep things moving (especially those triter moments), how to keep lyric intensity alive, and how to provide a good frame of support for his singers.

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