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BWW Review: Diva Netrebko Casts Spell at Metropolitan Opera Recital

Anna Netrebko in recital. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Anna Netrebko came out on stage in a shimmering white and silver gown with matching headband, looking like an Art Deco goddess in a poster by Alfonso Mucha. It's a look that suited her--not only because the Russian soprano has Bellini's NORMA on her Met schedule in the not-too-distant future, but because she's about as close to a goddess as the Met can conjure up these days (with maybe one or two competitors). And the audience ate it up.

The vocal glamour was there, too, in the all-Russian program of (mostly) songs that she clearly relished, by turns emotional, thoughtful and intense. While she has made her mark at the Met in operas by Donizetti and Verdi as well (particularly as Lady Macbeth, for me), there has been nothing quite like her efforts in Russian, with Tchaikovsky's IOLANTA an absolute standout. In this one-act fairytale, Netrebko was at her best, as an actress and a singer. Great artists like Jonas Kauffmann, Susan Graham or Stephanie Blythe make no bones about how meaningful it is for them to sing in their native tongues. Netrebko in Russian proves the method to this madness.

In theory, the Met should be too grand in scale for an event like this--after all, this isn't Billy Joel on tour--but it wasn't. Netrebko managed to bring it down to size, with the stage extended over the orchestra pit and a screen behind her and her wonderful accompanist, Malcolm Martineau. But it was really her style that did it: She turned every song--in Russian "romance," the equivalent of German lieder--into a mini-drama, reaching beneath the beautiful music for the truth within.

She began with five songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff, bursting on stage with "U mojego okna (Before my window)" and sounding totally glorious. She was so completely convincing that as she caressed the blossoms on the right side of the stage while she sang about "Lilacs," we believed her though it was clear that the blooms were not lilacs at all. I particularly liked the last of the Rachmaninoff pieces, "Ne poj, krasavica, pri mne (Sing not to me, beautiful maiden)," text by Pushkin, with her big voice cutting through the music as she whipped herself into a frenzy. Pianist Martineau came through like an extension of the singer's psyche.

One could argue, I suppose, that 10 songs by Rimsky-Korsakov--the middle part of the concert--threatened to tilt the balance of the program until it toppled. Yet, she regained control with the inclusion of the marvelous "Marfa's aria," or "Ivan Sergeich, khochesh (Ivan Sergeich, do you want to go)?" from the composer's opera, THE TSAR'S BRIDE. (The recital took a brief pause before the aria, which members of the audience mistook for an intermission and began filing out. Netrebko was very down to earth and charming in calling them back.) A kind of mad scene, it was the type of music in which she seemed utterly at home. The same was true of the song that followed, "Son v letnyuyu noch' (Summer Night's Dream)," which I thought was the best of the songs, with Netrebko's voice billowing with feeling.

The Tchaikovsky songs that ended the written program were certainly the highlight, thoughtful and seeming to tap into something deep inside her. She was at her considerable best in "Zabit' takskoro (So soon forgotten)," her expressive voice conveying her hurt and pain; in "Otchevo? (Why?)," she turned torchy, wondering "Why did you leave me?" and then lightened her voice in "Serenada (Serenade)," as she sang to her child. I particularly liked the way her voice tapped into the essence of "Ya li v pole da ne travuska bila? (Were I not a little blade of grass?)" as she bemoans her fate, being betrothed "to a harsh old man."

The best part of recitals is usually when the written program is over and the singer can cut loose. Netrebko was no exception, ready to move forward while hugging bouquets handed to her from the audience. She roamed from Russia to the worlds of Dvorak and Strauss, with "Songs My Mother Taught Me" and the lovely "Caecilie," proving her ability to put across the works of composers that may not share her bloodline but, certainly, her sensibility.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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