“It’s time for it to be universally acknowledged that Ms. Netrebko is the great diva of our day. She is the one providing the most charisma and excitement without sacrificing a lush, ever-darkening, still-agile tone.” - Zachary Woolfe (The New York Observer)
Unfortunately, I was not able to catch Anna Netrebko in ‘Anna Bolena’ at the Met this year. I had initially planned to, but my school obligations left me almost no time to visit the opera this year.
I did however manage to catch the tail end of the run with Angela Meade singing the title role. It was a waste of time. Everything you’ve heard about the Met’s production ‘Bolena’ is pretty much true. David McVickar’s production is atmospheric, but unimaginative and half-baked. I’m assuming it’s Ms. Netrebko’s presence that lifts the evening beyond utter banality.
Ms. Meade’s performance mainly confirmed what we already know: she has an impressive command of her vocal technique, and it was on ample display the night I saw her. The coloratura was impregnable; the sound perfectly focused and capable of filling this big house with ease. Her pianissimo phrasing was astonishing as was her formidable execution of trills, runs, fioratura and the messa di voce. It was a master class in cautious, but impeccably precise technique.
But Anna Bolena is not about impressive singing, no matter how many trills and runs Donizetti mandated in his score, and for all her technical prowess, Ms. Meade’s performance came off as ludicrous and, ultimately, guileless. (This is a major problem when you’re portraying one of the most ruthless women in history.) She is not an actress — She scrunched her face up to connote “anger,” did a little half-smirk when she was being “friendly,” and closed her eyes and laid her arms across her chest to be “at peace.” — but she doesn’t need to be Meryl Streep if she can cultivate a real stage presence. A little character study would become her, as would a good director. She needs to stop relying on stock gestures and timid acting tricks if she is going to become an actual artist.
Which brings me back to Ms. Netrebko. I plan to see the production when it returns in the spring with Netrebko back in the lead. After watching her last night in Eric Genovese’s beautiful production, staged at the Wiener Staatsoper (now available on Blu-Ray), I can safely say that this role signals a major milestone in her career.
Ms. Netrebko is one of the most controversial figures in opera, mainly because of her exceptional beauty and her undeniable star power. Many critics view her as the Brtiney Spears of opera, with her endorsement deals and her notorious partying, she has had a hard time being taken seriously. In the past, many opera buffs have found fault with her vocal technique, particularly in the Bel Canto repertoire for which she is best known. Many opera snobs imagine coloratura in a vacuum, as a mindless series of vocal calisthenics meant to be nailed with cool accuracy. Ms. Netrebko, in the tradition of Maria Callas and Barbra Streisand, understands that coloratura should be an organic outgrowth of the musical line, a means of amplifying emotion. Her runs and trills, accurate and stylish, never exist for their own sake.
More importantly, Ms. Netrebko is in her vocal prime, and she has scored a major triumph with this role. Her voice has never been more luscious and full (her legato singing could convert any nonbeliever), and while her voice may lack the spit-fire precision of Ms. Meade’s, Ms. Netrebko turns the calculating queen into a three-dimensional character. (No small accomplishment when you’re playing an Italian opera heroine.)
You get the sense that Ms. Netrebko understands every inch of her character. I don’t have enough space to get into the specifics of what makes her performance so electrifying; but suffice it to say, Ms. Netrebko possesses one of the most important and ineffable qualities that eludes many opera singers: charisma, an undeniable relationship with her audience.
When Ms. Netrebko is on stage, you simply cannot take your eyes off her. Her performance style deftly balances operatic grandiosity with subtle human emotions. It’s a specific style of acting; very tricky to pull off, yet it is the lifeblood of opera.
Take, for instance, the final cabaletta, “coppia iniqua,” when the disgraced queen slips in and out of sanity as she awaits her execution. Ms. Netrebko, looking directly into the camera, nearly burning right through it, seems to spit out every word as an accusation against all those who conspired against her. Ms. Netrbko may not have the voice of the great Callas (and I am not suggesting for a second that she does), but she has this blazing fire inside of her that lends an element of danger to her performance. It’s the same ineffable quality that came so naturally to Callas and made her so mesmerizing.
Ms. Netrebko has said that, for her, ‘Anna Bolena’ signals the next big phase of her career, as she soon plans to move in to the weightier Verdi rep. All I can say is, bring it on! Many argue that she has no business singing the virtuosic bel canto roles she has become known for, because she doesn’t practice truly flawless bel canto singing.
Perhaps, but I doubt anyone could argue with her riveting characterization of Anna Bolena. Simply put, this is the perfect part for her at the perfect moment. After a disastrous ’Lucia’ two years ago, and a misdirected turn as Antonia in ‘Les Contes D’Hoffmann’, Ms. Netrebko has finally staked her claim as a major artist.
Further more, she is an honest-to-god opera superstar (such things still do exist) with proven box office appeal. The opera community needs to be more supportive of charismatic singers who can draw in an audience and have them eating out of the palm of their hand. Ms. Netrebko is such a singer. Superb technicians make for a safe, pleasant listening experience. It is performers like Ms. Netrebko, who set audiences ablaze, and ultimately keep opera thriving.