REVIEW: Anna Netrebko, Force of Nature, at Carnegie Hall
DECEMBER 9, 2018
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Superstar of the opera world, Anna Netrebko swept onto the stage of Carnegie Hall Sunday afternoon to give her solo recital debut in the ingratiating Isaac Stern Auditorium. The charismatic soprano has harnessed social media to redefine what it means to be an opera star, and she seemed never more at home than when gliding onstage to a sold-out house of adoring fans, looking glamorous in a striking white gown with a purple and pink floral print. She carried a bouquet of flowers, which she cradled for the opening set of three Rachmaninoff songs. Accompanied flawlessly by the masterful Malcolm Martineau, and joined by a few additional guests, this was a concert event of glorious, outsized divadom.
Netrebko called the ambitious program "Day and Night," a far-reaching sampling of songs in Russian, German, English, Italian, Czech, and French, the first half focused on the theme of “day.” Opening with Rachmaninoff's "Lilacs," Netrebko's rich soprano pours forth, instantly filling the room. Within moments, it's clear that this will not be a conservatory recital sung from the crook of the piano. This a choreographed production befitting the opera world's glossiest larger-than-life diva. She constantly moves about the stage, singing from different angles and moving her arms and body like a character in a one-woman opera. placing her flowers theatrically on the stage, as her opening Rachmaninoff triptych concludes with "How fair this spot," and its pianissimo high A at the end.
Martineau began the piano introduction to Rimsky-Korsakov's "The lark sings louder," an energetic celebration of spring, before the applause died down (the admiring audience was eager to show appreciation even when Netrebko's body language indicated that the moment was not over), in another theatrical approach occasionally employed throughout. Richard Strauss's "Morgen!" followed, Netrebko moving to the wings to retrieve David Chan, whose solo violin brought warm support, but did not upstage the diva. This was an operatically styled Strauss Lied, with opulent agogic pauses and dramatic points of arrival. (The polar opposite approach to Matthias Goerne's subtler version at the New York Philharmonic earlier this week, and both are beautiful.)
Debussy's "Tears fall in my heart" brought exquisite pianism from Martineau in the French composer's delicate raindrop-like sixteenth notes, and simpler, darker colors from Netrebko. In "Depuis le jour," from Charpentier's 1900 Louise, a delirious aria of happiness in love, Netrebko floated in the stratosphere like spun gold. Inhabiting her character in dramatic manner, she fully explored the Hall's legendary acoustics, occasionally turning her back to the audience and singing into the shell, her lyric spinto easily resounding to the rear of the balcony.
Frank Bridge’s ditty "Go not, happy day," also displayed Netrebko's high lyric tessitura in lilting and lithe notes up above the staff, but not before two Tchaikovsky songs explored deeper, rangier subjects and musicality. Leoncavallo's graceful, upbeat "Mattinata" closed the "day" portion of the concert, although it seemed as if Netrebko had enough energy to continue unceasingly.
After intermission, Netrebko entered with a silver balloon in the shape of a star, releasing it to the ceiling with the whimsical announcement, "Night!" Having slipped into an elegantly understated black evening gown, she was joined by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano. The two performed a duet, "It is evening," from Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades in perfect step. Later, the duo sang the famous Barcarolle from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman with lilting panache.
The program's nocturnal half followed a similar template as the first, with folksy songs from Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky in Russian, poetic Germanic romanticism from Strauss, and the French "Après un rêve." Netrebko began Fauré's most enduring chanson standing behind the pianist, as if looking at her dream in hindsight. French song brings out Netrebko's tender side, as she gently caresses each syllable in long lined phrases.
The Czech composer Antonín Dvořák's nostalgic "When my own mother taught me to sing," also offers tenderness, the folksong-like melody offering ample opportunity to relish in sweetly ascending portamenti. However, the tenderest moment of the afternoon was Rachmaninoff's sublime "The Dream." Martineau brought spellbinding clarity to the layers of texture in Rachmaninoff's complex piano part, like a telescope bringing the stars of the nighttime sky into focus, and Netrebko kept her interpretation simple, not overindulging in the delicious melody singing "There is nothing more desirable in the world than a dream." It was appropriate that she ushered her accompanist to the front of the stage for specific recognition after this exquisite selection.
"Gold is a fine thing," from Douglas Moore's American opera The Ballad of Baby Doe, a showpiece for the soprano's upper register requiring great agility in arpeggiating melismas, flaunted Netrebko's skill in singing delicately and expressively at the same time. In long phrases that travel up, down, and around, she maintains an unparalleled consistency of vocal placement and timbre, like an Olympic figure skater who lands every jump effortlessly.
Much has been written about Anna Netrebko's spectacular instrument, as it has developed from lyric to spinto, and her instinctual approach to character and acting. But, Martineau's exceptional skills as collaborative pianist should not go unsung. His job here made all the more challenging as his leading lady moved every which way around the stage, frequently out of his line of sight, he transcended every moment with deceptive ease. He plays with a keen ear to texture, keeping the texture light, the melody carefully voiced to provide lush support, while not intruding upon the singer's spotlight. He spaces out accompanying arpeggios gracefully, allowing Netrebko to indulge freely, while making the flow of the music seem natural. And I enjoyed his way of winking at the audience in amusement, as when Netrebko teased us with deliciously suspenseful held high notes, as in her final treat of an encore, Puccini's "O mio babbino caro." He brings to life the composer's creation, while making space for Netrebko to be herself. Making space for a force of nature -- and what a force of nature it is.