Review: Anna Netrebko rings in the year with a Met Gala

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Review: Anna Netrebko rings in the year with a Met Gala
The soprano Anna Netrebko and the tenor Matthew Polenzani in Act I of “La Bohème,” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Dec. 31, 2019. The company’s prima donna showed off her past, present and future artistry in acts from three Puccini operas. Caitlin Ochs/The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- The Metropolitan Opera used to like to ring in the new year with a starry gala. But Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager since 2006, has preferred to use the occasion to unveil new productions, combining the festive evening with ambitious artistic statements.

On paper, this New Year’s Eve looked like it was trading the ambition for pure festivity. It was a gift to the Met’s reigning prima donna, soprano Anna Netrebko, and featured her in acts from three Puccini operas, conducted by the company’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

It was certainly a glittering showcase. But an artistic statement?

Surprisingly so. Netrebko seized the moment to make a strong statement about how a major singer develops her artistry as she matures. Singing Mimì in Act 1 of “La Bohème,” there were shades of Netrebko’s glorious past as a sumptuous “lirico spinto” soprano. In the title role of “Tosca,” Act 1, she was the blazing Netrebko of the present.

Finally, singing the title role of “Turandot,” she gave the lucky audience a preview of the Netrebko to come. This was just Act 2, when we meet this icy princess, who must sing the daunting aria “In questa reggia” and the subsequent Riddle Scene. I haven’t heard this music sung so excitingly since, as a teenager, I heard the awesome Birgit Nilsson at the Met. Netrebko will sing her first complete staged “Turandot” later this month at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, and she is scheduled to bring it to the Met in the 2021-22 season. I can’t wait.

To arrive here, she has had to monitor her development carefully, knowing when to play it safe with her choice of roles, and when to take a risk. Earlier in her career, Netrebko focused on bel canto parts that demanded facility in coloratura passagework, like Elvira in Bellini’s “I Puritani” and Norina in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” both of which she sang at the Met, and then fuller but still lyric soprano roles like Mimì and Violetta, in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Starting around 2011, she began to move into weightier fare, like Donizetti’s Anna Bolena; Puccini’s Manon Lescaut; Verdi’s Lady Macbeth and Aida; and the title role in Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur,” which she sang in a new production at the Met last New Year’s Eve.

Still, Turandot has generally been the province of dramatic sopranos who also sing Wagner and Strauss. And while she has done Elsa in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and has said she plans to add Strauss’ Salome in the future, Netrebko isn’t really associated with that repertory. But her voice these days has such radiance, focus and depth that it sounds enormous. Looking regal in Turandot’s silvery robes — this and the “Bohème” were Franco Zeffirelli’s gargantuan productions — and exuding fearsome coolness, she sang the opening phrases of “In questa reggia” with luminous colors and effortless power.

When Turandot referred to her ancestor, who cried out in anguish as she was ravished by men, Netrebko delivered the piercing phrase with an intensity that sent chills through me. Yet when Turandot melted at the thought of this young woman, she shaped the ascending phrase with aching poignancy, lingering on a sad and shimmering sustained tone. As the aria built, Netrebko matched the music with vocal ferocity. In the dramatic moment when Turandot must send phrases soaring over the entire chorus and orchestra, she delivered thrillingly.

The Met went all out for the occasion by providing strong casts for all three acts, and Nézet-Séguin, who just had a triumph in Berg’s “Wozzeck” a few days ago, in the pit. Netrebko’s Calàf in “Turandot” was her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, who recently starred at the Met in Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades.” As Calàf, he sang with robust sound and pinging high notes. (He will also join her in the opera later this month in Munich.)

Eyvazov was especially good as Cavaradossi in Act 1 of “Tosca” (in David McVicar’s Zeffirelli-esque realistic production). With his impassioned singing of the aria “Recondita armonia,” Eyvazov conveyed how deeply this restless painter and political rebel adores Tosca, a celebrated Roman diva. It was only in recent years that Netrebko introduced her Tosca. But in no time, she has become perhaps the role’s leading international exponent. She was again arresting on Tuesday, especially in the way she found different vocal colorings, sometimes dipping into the earthy depths of her voice, to convey the shifting moods of Tosca: fiery and fiercely jealous, yet vulnerable. Bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin made a menacing Scarpia.

Though Netrebko may have moved beyond Mimì in “La Bohème,” she showed that she could still bend the role’s phrases with lyrical tenderness and affecting elegance. Moments of fervor also offered glimpses into the deep longing that a singer must also convey with this character. Tenor Matthew Polenzani, who sang Rodolfo earlier this season at the Met, was again splendid. The other bohemians, all excellent, were Quinn Kelsey as Marcello, Christian Van Horn as Colline and Davide Luciano as Schaunard. Nézet-Séguin drew vibrant and incisive playing from the great Met orchestra in all three acts.

Still, this was Netrebko’s night. At 48, she seems in her prime, with a long and bright future still ahead. If that wasn’t an encouraging New Year’s message from the Met, I don’t know what is.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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