The 3,800 seat Metropolitan Opera may be a temple to music – but it’s not a recital hall. Increasingly, though, the company is entrepreneurially scheduling it on some Sunday afternoons as exactly that.
A couple of years ago, tenor Jonas Kaufmann offered an afternoon of German Lieder. Kaufmann, a compelling actor in staged opera, often appears reticent in other contexts, and he certainly did here, looking like he’d rather be nearly anywhere else. He also took a long time to warm up – it wasn’t till the encores when the tenor, smiling through gritted teeth, offered “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” that the audience went crazy.
The problem was partially Kaufmann, in less-than-best form. But it’s also the venue and and the crowd. Neither was right for an afternoon of intimate, serious, cerebral miniatures.
Last Sunday, supernova soprano Anna Netrebko presented an afternoon of Russian song, sweeping all before her. If the Met stage crew had opened the loading door, I doubt it would have felt any more like a new wind was blowing through the place.
I’ll try to capture an afternoon both wonderful and bizarre – a celebration of art and artifice. First, I should say that it was in many ways a triumph, due largely to Anna’s extraordinary gifts. These include physical beauty, a supreme sense of confidence and charisma, and most important, a blue-chip vocal instrument of magically dark plushness, yet also capable of brilliance and ethereal refinement.
Above all, Anna Netrebko is a creature of the theater – and she gave a recital that succeeded on her terms. (But vocal students: do not try this at home! Anna made it work because she’s Anna – I doubt anyone else could.)
What she offered was an exceptionally generous, large-format event – 26 songs (including a couple of encores), uncountable ovations, and two gowns. In the spirit of the Oscars – which took place on the same day, and which was similar in terms of flashbulbs and celebrity sightings – I’ll start with the dresses.
Gown #1 was a crystal-embellished white columnar sheath, worn with hair down and a diamond headpiece. I think it was meant to suggest Klimt and the fin de siècle – or maybe the early ‘20s? – but mostly, I was reminded of Disney’s Pocahontas, and wondered if Anna might burst into “Colors of the Wind.”
Gown #2 was teal satin, again bejeweled, and fitted with a large overskirt above a narrower one, with hair worn in an up-do. This also had a period feel: the ‘50s. (Anna could have been a glamorous hostess out of a Ross Hunter movie.)
Then there’s the stage deportment. It’s generally a given that recitals involve stillness and minimal gestures. But that’s not for Netrebko, a physically alive actress in every way. She used the stage as it suited her, often turning songs into short operas. Sometimes the hand gestures suggested mime or even hula. At various points I thought of silent film acting, or (when she really went to town) a beauty pageant contestant’s idea of how to perform classical song. At least once – in Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous “Lilacs,” when Anna ran her hands through a bough of blossoms on the side of the stage – she crossed over into full-blown camp. (I wondered what her pianist, the superb Malcolm Martineau, who has worked with many of today’s greatest recitalists, might have been thinking.)
And yet – it was a dazzling performance. Netrebko’s vocal credentials are unimpeachable; so is her sincerity and connection to the material. Russian song – especially many of the Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky pieces that she chose – have a bold, melancholy emotionality that is inherently more theatrical than, say, the Lieder of Hugo Wolf. And when subtlety is called for, it’s there – as in Tchaikovsky’s “Was I not a little blade of grass?,” a heart-stopping reading that benefitted from Anna’s meltingly lovely pianissimi.
Both encores encapsulated Netrebko’s artistry – Strauss’s “Cäcilie” showcased the thrill of her upper register at full throttle; Dvořák’s “Songs my mother taught me” her glorious tonal float. Early in the latter song came a note so beautiful it received a round of applause – I disapproved, but I also understood. It was that kind of day.