W.C. Fields used to have a funny trope about in show business you should never work with children or animals. To that list should perhaps be added the soprano Anna Netrebko.
L.A. Opera presented Ms. Netrebko, for the first time in a decade, along with her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov in concert Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a collection of operatic favorites that ran the gamut from the sublime to the stentorian. This was very welcome homecoming for Ms. Netrebko since the last roles she sang here were Lucia, Juliette, and Manon, all partnered by Rolando Villazon.
A crackling rendition of the overture to La Forza del Destino led by the evening’s conductor Jader Bignamini started things off. His Verdi was exemplary and it’s easy to take these familiar warhorses for granted until you’re sitting there with 60 plus people are sawing away at it for your musical pleasure. The strings had a wonderful dark tone and the horn paying was absolutely precise from the first.
Then our soloists took the stage for the the Act I duet from Otello. Principal cellist Dane Little giving us all a warning that we might need a hanky with his tender introduction. Mr. Eyvazov, being the relatively unknown quantity here, displayed an attractive voice with a dry, almost metallic, timbre that continued to gain color as the evening progressed. If the top doesn’t thunder and bloom as much as you’d like it is all of a piece and uncommonly even in register. Ms. Netrebko’s Desdemona is an interpretation we deserve to hear in full and she used that limpid top of hers to dazzling effect.
The short overture to Verdi’s early Attila came next with its echoes of the same composer’s Macbeth proving a fitting introduction to Ms. Netrebko’s party piece, the entrance aria “Vieni t’affretta!” She strode on stage, letter in hand, and proceeded to “read” it from memory. After the,’…addio’ she crumpled it and tossed it to a friend in the front row. You could hear the chuckle starting in the audience just as she flung a blazing, “Ambizioso spirto!” into the auditorium that probably stunned the pigeons outside on the Music Center plaza.
She proceeded to give us the cavatina and both verses of the cabaletta and spared absolutely nothing from glittering top to burnished bottom. She displayed an astonishing amount of technical control and proved her credentials as a super-breather. She also gave a full theatrical performance that showed her more than able to conjure the dark arts whilst turning herself into the human equivalent of a vocal grenade launcher.
Mr. Eyvazov followed with Manrico’s “Ah,si ben mio” followed by the “Di quella pira” and I found it a poor choice for his gifts. In spite of an accurate and apparently easy top ‘C’ he made heavy work of the cavatina’s line and ignored the composer’s modest decorative markings altogether. He made a simple snack of a cadenza that many tenors have turned into a buffet of emotion.
Then the Act II prelude to Un Ballo in Maschera brought our singers out for Verdi’s fiery duet “Teco io sto.” In spite of Ms. Netrebko’s obvious suitability to this role there were three participants involved; herself, her husband, and her music stand. Nevertheless she threw herself into the line of fire of Mr. Eyvazov’s ardor and in spite of her feigned dismay was easily vanquished in a few page turns. Her “Si, t’amo!”—full and opulent at the moment she surrendered—was, literally, breathtaking. The finale of the first half found both in strong voice on the final high C.
A grateful audience welcomed the singers back after the interval for the love duet from Lehar’s The Land of Smiles. “Tu che m’hai preso il cuor.” Does it sound better in Italian? Only if you’re not German, I think. They certainly had a lot of fun with it and it was a nice sorbet after the heavy drama of the first half.
Ms. Netrebko returned to offer up Adriana Lecouvreur’s “Poveri fiori.” She charmingly announced that as this was her first public performance of the aria she was using her score and begged our indulgence. I wouldn’t call it a polished interpretation but certainly the bones of the piece were there. As her mature voice flirts with those deep purple colors she’s got on the bottom it’s obviously a role she could have a great success in. Plus she’s got that killer fil di voce. She seemed to wish phrase through the end of the first section to the beginning of the second in the grand diva tradition but she wasn’t quite there just yet.
Mr. Eyvazov answered back with Maurizio’s “L’anima ho stanca” from the same opera (I’m seeing a future contract here) and this showed him to his best advantage of anything on the program. His shining upper middle filled out the composer’s phrases beautifully and he gave an impassioned performance that won bravos from the crowd.
Our diva returned to give us the ubiquitous “Ebben! Ne andrò lontana,” which must be the most performed aria from the least performed opera in the repertoire. Once again her technical control dazzled. I’m glad to say I only heard her tone loosen once or twice, and that just a shade, for an evening with this much heavy vocalism. Announcements of her coming Abigaille in Nabucco, Maddalena in Chenier, to say nothing of Turandot and Salome leave me clutching my pearls. But, then again, this was the year she was supposed to sing Norma so we shall see what we shall see.
Giordano’s Andrea Chenier took up the last part of the program with Mr. Eyvazov giving us the Improvviso from Act I. Perhaps it’s a bit easier to sing with a good warm-up than where it falls early in the opera. He took his time on the big phrases to the delight of the crowd.
(It strikes me that Eyvazov in an unenviable position. On the one hand he’s married to one of the greatest vocal technicians in the world and someone who I am certain is able to share with him most of the mysteries therein. On the other he’s married to Anna Netrebko and her career which I’m certain has its own set of plusses and minuses. Standing onstage next to such a vivacious and beloved performer can’t be easy and apart from the affection they obviously feel for each he does manage to hold his own vocally.)
After a brief flirtation with the Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut we were back in the thick of the French Revolution with the final duet from Chenier. Mr. Eyvazov and Ms. Netrebko gave their all even to the point of she bridging phrases up to those coruscating high notes before their names are finally called for the guillotine. It was utterly and completely thrilling. The crowd stood and cheered with good reason.
The encores were surprisingly bountiful, especially after such a grueling program. First our Anna, who you know likes to have her fun, favored us with “O mio babbino caro” where she held the penultimate ‘pieta’ for such an impossibly long time, spinning, spinning, spinning out, that people in the audience started to laugh and applaud mid-note.
Then Mr. Eyvazov brought his A-game with the operatic national anthem “Nessun dorma.” He too displayed his lungpbusting abilities on that penultimate high B. Then they started the “Libiamo” from Traviata and my eyebrows hit the roof. Ms. Netrebko sailed through the fiorature of the drinking song with a stunning assurance that left my mouth hanging open though I’m afraid those skills still eluded Mr. Eyvazov. The charming duet “Cantami” from the Russian composer Igor Krutoy sounded like the kind of tune they play over the end credits on a film.
Los Angeles has a very healthy population of Russian emigrés and they were out in force dressed to the absolute hilt making the Dorothy Chandler look more like a Las Vegas casino than a classical music venue. Which, of course, brings me to the clothes. Our diva wore a stunning red satin sheath silk-screened with large black roses with a loosely gathered train in the back that was very flattering. For the second half she came out in Cinderella’s ball gown all in pink with a blood red bodice and literally carpeted with crystals. She is currently blonde.
Mr. Eyvazov clearly fancies himself a bit of a dandy from his publicity photos. Although he was in tails and white waistcoat he also ported a jewel studded cravat. I wanted to slip him a biography of Beau Brummell.
Photo: Vladimir Shirkov