Anna Netrebko is an opera star—an opera star and a half—but she does give recitals. The Russian soprano gave one in Carnegie Hall yesterday afternoon, with Malcolm Martineau, the Scotsman who is one of the foremost accompanists of our time.
I first heard Netrebko give a recital in 2009. That was in Salzburg, with Daniel Barenboim at the piano. She sang a program of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. In the Metropolitan Opera House in 2016, Netrebko again gave a Russian program, this time adding Rachmaninoff to Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. The pianist was Martineau, as yesterday.
Yesterday’s program had Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff, for sure—but it had a lot else as well. This was an old-fashioned variety show, offering a range of famous songs and arias. Netrebko sang in five languages, by my count.
Did they all sound as natural as her Russian? No, but she was game, and admirable. So was Victoria de los Angeles when she sang, for example, “Blow the Wind Southerly.” Who cared?
Nominally, yesterday’s program had a theme: “Day and Night.” That’s what it said in our program booklets. I regarded this as a nod to critics, administrators, and academics—who insist that a recital have a theme. The public is very different, of course. They want good music, and if there’s a variety of it, all the better.
Netrebko might have sung a little Cole Porter, to go with her (nominal) theme—“Night and Day.” But that was one famous number she omitted.
In the usual course of things, divas receive flowers at the end of a recital. Yesterday, Netrebko walked out with a bouquet, one that matched her dress. She gave Callas-style waves, her hand high in the air. (Another contemporary diva, Angela Gheorghiu, does this too.) Netrebko did not follow the usual recital comportment. She was more like an opera star, strolling around the stage, striking poses, doing some acting, placing her hands on the pianist’s shoulders, and so on.
Netrebko did not follow the usual recital comportment. She was more like an opera star.
Netrebko and Martineau began with Rachmaninoff’s “Lilacs,” a song made famous by the composer’s piano transcription of it. Netrebko was “hooked up” from the beginning. She was ready to sing, technically and mentally. And Martineau played this song exquisitely. He did not put a foot wrong, and he would continue this way, all afternoon. You can take this pianist for granted, really—which is probably what you want in an accompanist.
In a subsequent Rachmaninoff song, which we know in English as “How fair this spot,” Netrebko sang an easy, light high B, which she held forever. It was that kind of afternoon for her.
Now and then, she was wayward—veering sharp—but basically she was in control. The top was free, as on that B; the bottom was “bottled,” as they used to say about Callas’s lower voice.
For Strauss’s “Morgen!,” Netrebko and Martineau called on some high-class help: David Chan, the concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He did not play with his best sound, but he was plenty good. Netrebko did not do her best shaping, but she did not make a hash of the song.
At some points throughout the afternoon, Netrebko was undisciplined, indulging in license. She was off the leash. What I mean is, she did not have a Levine, Muti, or Gergiev in the pit. She could follow her heart’s desire, without interference from Martineau, and sometimes her desire led her astray. But only sometimes.
A Debussy song, “Il pleure dans mon cœur,” was not sung in traditional French fashion. It was hotter than that. But it was also effective, and I think Debussy would have loved it. A Frank Bridge song, “Go not, happy day,” was also untraditional. It lacked dearness. But Martineau was superb in it—absolutely superb—and let me say again that the soprano was game. Her Lieder were not like Elisabeth Schumann; her Bridge was not like Janet Baker. But she was game for anything, and largely lovable in it.
She ended the first half of her program with “Mattinata” (Leoncavallo). She waltzed around in it—literally—and then threw flowers into the aisle. Why not the audience? I think that was a misfire—not a vocal or a musical one, but a theatrical one.
For the second half of her recital, she walked out in a different dress, of course, and she walked out carrying a balloon on a long string. The balloon was in the shape of a star, symbolizing the night, I suppose. She also walked out with another singer: Jennifer Johnson Cano, an American mezzo, who would join Netrebko for two duets.
I thought of a recording of Strauss excerpts, made by Renée Fleming in 1999. She had the assistance of two other singers (famous in their own rights): Barbara Bonney and Susan Graham. They dubbed themselves “the Flemettes.” So Jennifer Johnson Cano was Netrebko’s Flemette, in a way, for the afternoon.
The two of them sang “It is evening” from The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky) and, later on in the program, the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann (Offenbach). JJC’s contribution was lush, solid, and beautiful.
Some solo highlights from the second half of the recital? A Rimsky-Korsakov song—“The clouds begin to scatter”—was perfectly sculpted. Fauré’s “Après un rêve” wove its magic (and Netrebko did not sound un-French here, at all). Dvorak’s famous song, “When my old mother taught me to sing,” was consummate.
And even better, if possible, was Rachmaninoff’s “Dream.” It reflected great maturity and poise. I wrote in my program, “Wow.”
Netrebko held a high note forever. Forever. The audience giggled. But, oh, it was good, the whole aria.
There was a nod to America on this program in the form of the Silver Aria from The Ballad of Baby Doe (Douglas Moore). Have you heard it since Sills sang it? One rarely does.
Throughout the afternoon, Netrebko husbanded her voice, knowing just how much to give. At the end of two hours of singing, she was as fresh and capable as she had been at the start.
I had expected many encores from her, but she sang just two—two good ones. The first was a chestnut associated with Adelina Patti, and many a coloratura thereafter: “Il bacio,” by Luigi Arditi. Want to hear Sills sing it? At age eight? Go here. The second encore was “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi (Puccini). Netrebko held a high note forever. Forever. The audience giggled. But, oh, it was good, the whole aria.
“Throwback Sunday,” a friend of mine called this recital (approvingly). Anna Netrebko gave a Golden Age recital. You could snicker at certain aspects of it, but future generations will wish they had been there, and we were.