On paper, it reads like the operatic equivalent of Mission Impossible: Take over the taxing title role of Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" right after Russian superstar Anna Netrebko has completed a run of seven sold-out performances.
That was the assignment the Metropolitan Opera offered to Angela Meade. And the promising young American soprano rose to the challenge, putting her own stamp on the role and drawing prolonged cheers from the audience at Friday night's final curtain.
Unable to compete with Netrebko's mesmerizing stage presence — who can? — and lacking her uniquely alluring vocal timbre, Meade compensated with the gifts that have made her a fast-rising star. She has a strong, supple voice, a knack for floating soft high notes, and an unusual agility in the rapid-fire technique of bel canto singing so crucial to this 1830 masterpiece.
She wasted no time in showing off her talents. Anna's first aria and cabaletta — which had proved difficult for Netrebko on opening night — was sung with impeccable phrasing and included a couple of high pianissimos that seemed to be spun out of finest silk. There were more of those in the final scene, and at one point Meade accompanied a hushed high note by extending a hand in the air as if reaching for a thread of the delicate fabric.
In the long downward runs that Anna sings in the ensemble that ends Act 1, and again in the closing scene, Meade articulated each note with rare precision. Throughout the long evening, she made the intricate vocal line sound effortless — the mark of a true bel canto expert.
Not everything about her performance was flawless. Her chest voice, or lower register, is still developing, and that limited her ability to punch out some of Anna's most urgent phrases. Her trills in the final scene didn't come across distinctly. And the E-flat above high C that she interpolated as her final note sounded thin and was quickly chopped off. (Her D natural at the conclusion of Act 1 had sounded just fine.)
Considering she was having to fit into a direction tailored to Netrebko's talents, Meade did a commendable job carving out her own portrayal. Her Bolena was softer and more vulnerable, though never lacking in regal bearing. Her large size hampered her hardly at all, except on a few occasions when she had obvious difficulty rising from a sitting or kneeling position.
The only other newcomer to the cast was mezzo-soprano Katherine Goeldner, who subbed for an ailing Ekaterina Gubanova as Jane Seymour.
Goeldner's voice is not as plush as Gubanova's, but she sang with warmth and intensity The David McVicar production looks every bit as dreary as it did on opening night, but from the first notes of the overture, Marco Armiliato's conducting was greatly improved. He showed far more drive and sense of pacing, and the ensembles jelled better.
Meade, who is in her early 30s, had a meager Met resume before Friday: one performance of Verdi's "Ernani" in 2008 — as a last-minute stand-in for an ailing colleague— and one performance in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." This season, besides two more "Annas," she gets an entire run of "Ernani" to herself, including a live HD broadcast.