Cher Public

Winter afternoon’s dream

Netrebko in recitalStandard fare threatened to dominate the final weekend of February at the Met: a routinely-cast revival of Cav & Pag plus two recent productions by the house’s favorite Eyre-head. But then there were also two extraordinary opportunities to indulge in divadienst of the “An(n)a-in-excelsis” genus—Saturday offered another chance, announced only 24 hours earlier, to sample Ana Maria Martinez’s unexpected Butterfly, then Sunday afternoon brought Anna Netrebko’s exceptional, sold-out sui generis all-Russian recital. 

It took the better part of a decade—including two high-profile cancelations—or New York to finally hear Netrebko in recital, which is a rare occurrence at the Met, hers being only the third fourth this century after Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape and Vittorio Grigolo. Though the Met hosted recitals in the 1980s by such celebrated divas as Jessye Norman and Marilyn Horne, Margaret Price and Kiri Te Kanawa, Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland (the final two in their last-ever Met appearances), it surely never presented until today such an extravagant, deeply-felt, altogether unorthodox prima donna showcase.

In collaboration with deluxe accompanist Malcolm Martineau, the glamourous Russian superstar offered five songs by Rachmaninoff, 10 by Rimsky-Korsakov (along with Marfa’s mad scene from The Tsar’s Bride) and eight by Tchaikovsky. Anyone expecting a reverent demonstration by a singer with “no voice but ggrrreat artistry” (props to Anna Russell) would surely have been disappointed and probably more than a little shocked by today’s concert.

Netrebko didn’t follow the “usual” recital etiquette, didn’t sing a single song in contemplative repose nestled in the curve of the piano. From the opening rhapsodic and expansive “Before my window” by Rachmaninoff to the thrillingly orgasmic conclusion of Rimsky’s “Summer Night’s Dream” which ended the first half, Nebrebko lived each song as if it were part of a staged opera, moving with abandon about the stage, gesturing meaningfully to the front row or to the Family Circle. She performed every selection as intensely, as dramatically as she did that vernal excerpt from The Tsar’s Bride.

The hordes of photo-takers who had initially been relatively restrained in their snapping went bonkers when she crossed to caress the flowers contained the double vases to the right of the piano during Rachmaninoff’s “Lilacs.” She posed gravely in a convenient pool of light against the wall of screens set up on the stage mounted over the orchestra pit to begin Tchaikovsky’s “Why?” and ended it at the lip of the stage her arms thrown wide-open, her rapt face, eyes closed, turned to the heavens. What might have appeared to some pure prima donna self-indulgence instead felt both thrillingly flamboyant and simply, truly sincere.

My occasionally bumpy long-term relationship with Anna began 18 years ago when I fell for her delectable Louisa in Prokofiev’s endearing Betrothal in a Monastery during a Mariinsky visit to the Met. While I again surrendered to her Natasha and enjoyed her palpable if short-lived chemistry as Gilda opposite Rolando Villazón, her uneven, often insecure singing in willful excursions into bel canto, particularly the sketchy Elvira and Lucia, left me wondering why so much of the world had chosen her as its soprano.

Antonia and Mimi exploited her gift for full-throated dying pathos and while I liked both her Manon and Adina more than many, nothing enchanted like her guest appearance with the Mariinsky at the Kennedy Center in 2010 when she sang a “bleeding chunk” of Iolanta with Sergei Skorokhodov. In one of my favorite love duets, I experienced the enthralling Netrebko I hadn’t since those early Prokofiev heroines. For me, Russian music brought out special qualities in her that I had been missing.

Netrebko TealSadly neither her Tatyana or Iolanta rose to my high expectations, but her surprising, thrilling Lady Macbeth and last fall’s divine Trovatore Leonora finally won me over again, convincing me that indeed Netrebko had become one of today’s most exciting, most satisfying singers. Technical problems (some continuing pitch issues notwithstanding) had been conquered and she now sang with a confidence and abandon that occurs too rarely these days.

Those sterling qualities, along with a clearly deep connection to the songs she had chosen, were in conspicuous evidence during Sunday’s recital. The richly soaring voice of increasingly dark velvet never sounded better–from thrillingly full-throated fortissimo high notes to finely-spun gossamer pianissimi that were literally breath-taking. She did tire a bit in the second half, and her crowd-pleasing Dvorak and Richard Strauss encores drew cheers but showed her at less than her best.

As to the all-important “couture report” she wore different ensembles from what she had worn last week in Baden-Baden. In the first half, with her hair down and crowed with a bejeweled cap, she appeared in a knockout white beaded caftan with a high slit in front which revealed glimpses of killer legs and vertiginous high heels. After intermission she emerged in a luxurious teal ballgown with jet beading at the bodice and down the front (credited in the program to Pamella Roland) which was, I thought, less becoming. One of the more endearing moments of the afternoon occurred during the prelude to “Reckless nights” when she—with perfect sang-froid—bent down to pull off something that had stuck to the heel of her shoe.

Her obvious enthusiasm for and commitment to the music was marred by a star-struck, packed audience that mindlessly applauded after every selection even when she signaled for silence between a set of “rose” songs by Rimsky. The maniacal picture-taking lessened during the Tchaikovsky during which I saw a stealthy usher chastise more than one offending audience member. But Netrebko took it all in stride (including returning for her final Rimsky set to see a good portion of the audience by mistake already exiting for intermission!) and seemed to be having a genuinely good time too. How often can one say that after the average lieder program? And how many sopranos get to put a big dent in their daily fitbit regimen while singing a recital?

The overriding melancholy of so many Russian songs began to pall by the end, but she did choose a most revealing song with which to end. Tchaikovsky’s “Amidst the day” concludes with the lines “My thoughts, feelings, songs and strength—they are all for you!” which beautifully conveyed Netrebko’s wishes to her listeners, but that song ends with a gorgeous extended piano postlude during which she just turned away from the audience and listened to Martineau—a most generous and moving gesture.

Figaro 1A less exalted Met excursion occurred Thursday with the lively if uneven return of last season’s disappointing new Le Nozze di Figaro led this time by Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi whose lithe, transparent reading was one of the best things about the evening. Occasionally though one wanted him to slow down and savor the moment, particularly in passages like the bewitching Letter Duet. The orchestra responded with wonderful buoyancy to his fleet baton and in particular the woodwinds played gorgeously.

Unfortunately Luisi, like his unfriendly “boss” James Levine, disdained appoggiaturas—I counted maybe three all evening and one was probably a mistake. Luisi also condones the bad-old policy of cutting both Marcellina and Basilio’s arias, which was unfortunate since Robert McPherson made a most welcome Met debut as an unusually young and tartly-sung music master. Have those two fizzy Act Four arias ever been done at the Met?

Most of Nozze’s smaller roles were excellently done—one rarely notices a Don Curzio as it’s often cast with a nearly voiceless aging character tenor but Scott Scully’s pungent notary demanded attention. Maurizio Muraro has rightly become one of the Met’s go-to buffo bassos, and Paul Corona made an exceptionally full-voiced and authoritative Antonio. Ashley Emerson’s petite Barbarina did much with little: her “L’ho perduta” was an exquisite bonbon, and this production unusually had her and Cherubino sing the little duet in Act Three usually done by two bridesmaids.

Over the past decade many houses worldwide have turned to casting retired Cherubinos (or Susannas) as Marcellina with decidedly mixed results. A veteran of last season’s premiere Susanne Mentzer who debuted 27 years ago at the Met as Nozze’s randy page returned Thursday in improved form. But although she cannily portrayed the vain yet ultimately warm-hearted woman there’s not a lot of voice left.

Unfortunately I was prompted to wonder just how soon Isabel Leonard, the evening’s Cherubino, might too be taking up Marcellina. Although she traipsed about with infectious vim, her colorless voice sounded perilously thin, its top pinched. Since the role is usually considered a gift to lyric mezzos (or sopranos), it was a shock to encounter a Cherubino so vocally labored and unendearing.

Usually seen as heavies like Sparafucile and Hunding, Mikhail Petrenko was odd casting as Figaro. He entered strenuously into the fun without ever convincing us that he belonged in Mozart’s buffa coming across as an eager if not particularly quick-witted valet. His bass, which was disconcertingly underpowered last season in Bartók’s dramatic Bluebeard’s Castle, sounded shockingly overmatched by Mozart! He was more than once a smidgen behind Luisi early in the evening, causing some chaotic moments in the ensembles. He did pull it together and ended strongly with a vigorous and authoritative “Aprite un po’ quel’occhi.”

His Susanna was much more happily cast: Romanian soprano Anita Hartig, who recently shone as Liù opposite Nina Stemme, eschewed soubrettish cuteness. Instead she embodied a sexy, wily maid who recognized the hurdles to her upcoming marriage and triumphed over them. Her large, silvery soprano could occasionally turn white and glassy on top but otherwise it glowed warmly particularly in her heavenly “Deh vieni, non tardar” for which Luisi at last slowed down and accompanied with loving attention. She sounded as if she might soon be ready to step into the role of the Countess.

Figaro 2As Hartig’s mistress, Rachel Willis-Sørensen repeated the role of her December 2014 debut but suggested that Mozart may no longer be best suited for her. Her big, plain, slightly unwieldy soprano seemed heavy for the Countess. I suspect Donna Anna could still work well for her but she may be better suited to a heavier German repertoire as some recent engagements suggest. She scored a success as Eva in Die Meistersinger in San Francisco last fall and sang Lohengrin’s Elsa at the Deutsche Oper Berlin as recently as Valentine’s Day.

One especially missed the vocal glamour one associates with this role, and the two big arias in particular did not go well. Her unsettled “Porgi amor” was less troubling than “Dove sono” which she struggled to control and her attempt at a piano for the reprise in particular faltered badly. That said, she was an endearingly feisty, high-strung Rosina, one who still displayed palpable chemistry with her callous husband.

Luca Pisaroni had previously performed Figaro at the Met in 2005 and 2009 but more recently has turned to the role of the Count which he carried off Thursday with insouciant ease and a cocky attitude. Although a more comic than dangerous figure with a parcel of amusing double-takes and slow burns, he sang with easy command making a decent stab at the florid conclusion of his powerful aria. It was a shock that he failed to kneel to plead for his wife’s forgiveness during the finale, but then this vapid busy Richard Eyre production doesn’t pretend that Figaro is anything other than a lightweight sex comedy.

At last season’s gala opening night when I first saw Eyre’s “vision” of Mozart and da Ponte’s inexhaustible masterpiece, one of greatest works ever written and perhaps my favorite opera, I was gravely disappointed. I had thought his debut Carmen was fine enough (except for its superfluous choreographic interludes by Christopher Wheeldon) but found his subsequent Werther downright peculiar especially its perversely looming sets. Their designer, Rob Howell, returned for Nozze creating a towering, hulking castle of ugly bronze grillwork that occasionally spun on its turntable just because it could.

By populating that castle with lots of silent extras who were first set in motion during the whizzing overture, Eyre’s production does a plausible job at evoking the busy Almaviva household on a “crazy day.” But the transparent whirling set undercuts most entrances by showing the characters arriving on stage even before joining the action.

Moving the opera to the 1930s makes little sense nor did any of it look at all Spanish. The production’s resemblance to what Downton Abbey might look like a decade later has been mentioned by many. One might have expected Eyre to exploit that precarious time period to suggest a more modern equivalent of Beaumarchais’s world of masters and servants on the edge of a precipice. Jean Renoir’s masterpiece La Règle du jeu, for example did that superbly but Eyre suggests nothing of the kind. His Figaro couldn’t be less rebellious or dangerous: he just wants to get married; the Count is not a powerful despot headed for a fall: he’s just a sex addict.

This season’s revival wasn’t as much of a letdown as last year’s premiere as I already knew what to expect and had lowered my expectations. The inoffensive production will no doubt provide an adequate frame for revolving casts but it really has nothing to say about an inexhaustible opera that shouldn’t ever be allowed to become routine.

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera (Nozze); Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera (Netrebko).