I was not at the gala, so my comments are a response to comments I have read from singers who were there and from two reviews that disagree on most aspects but are united in Ms. Netrebko’s singing (The New York Times and Operawire). From the recordings I have listened to of Netrebko’s “In questa reggia,” I am not surprised that she would do well. Her tone is fundamentally full and flexible and always well-supported. There is enough natural substance to the voice to justify certain dramatic roles. But before I continue, a little background regarding my personal assessment of Netrebko’s voice when she caught the world’s attention.
I tend to shy away from opera singers who are complimented for their looks far beyond their voices. That was the case with Netrebko in the beginning and I was turned off even before I had the chance to hear her live. When I finally did, it was a production of Rigoletto with Villazon as Duca di Mantua. The voice reminded me of the more substantial incarnations of Renata Scotto’s career–More lyric than coloratura. She was comfortable in the first act but not dominant. She was breathtakingly beautiful in the second and third acts. Therefore I was surprised that she took on Puritani and Sonnambula. In both roles I found her inconsistent relative to intonation in the highest parts of both roles. Lucia was even worse and the Traviata for which she garnered great reviews also betrayed suspect intonation the highest parts of the role. I said often (perhaps even on this blog–I must search) back then that she should sing more lyric roles. Gounod’s Juliette was a great fit for her. I experienced that incarnation opposite Alagna in a celebrated MET production. Unfortunately the night I saw it had Domingo in the pit to disastrous results. While I loved her “Je veux vivre,” despite Domingo pedantically interfering in a 3-pattern (no professional conductor would be beating 3 in that situation), I left the theater after the first act. I could no longer bear the disaster in the pit. I’m a huge fan of Domingo as a singer, even in some of his baritone incarnations. If he were serious as a conductor, he should have taken some lessons from his many great conductor-friends. But I digress! I had also enjoyed several of Netrebko’s excellent Mozart roles.
A few seasons ago, I experienced her as an excellent Leonora in Trovatore in Berlin and later as Elsa in Dresden’s Lohengrin. The voice had gained in fullness without losing flexibility. I was impressed! The Lady Macbeth attempts (as I experienced at the Waldbühne in Berlin), in my opinion, were disastrous. I remember a similarly scary broadcast of a celebration at the Bolshoi in Moscow. The hint of a wobble was evident and a sense that the voice was at its limits:
I was under the impression that she would quickly decline as so many before her have done by taking on heavier and heavier roles until they cross the line of inappropriateness. Perhaps I was wrong! Many great singers with very long careers have overcome disastrous role attempts to become models of vocal intelligence: Gedda’s singular Lohengrin and Pavarotti foregoing Cavaradossi for 13 years after he was advised by di Stefano to respect the potential perils of the role.
I questioned Netrebko’s choices further because of the fact that the World Operatic Oligarchy (WOO for short) banked so much on the persons of Netrebko and Kaufmann to unbearable stress, at very least evident in Kaufmann’s illnesses over the last few years. But unlike Kaufmann’s dilemma of being the only lirico-spinto that WOO has bet on, Netrebko’s reign as the current prima donna in assoluta, she is far from the only viable and celebrated soprano taking on the light Wagner, Verdi and Puccini in the world. She may have more time to calculate and learn from potential mistakes. If she is to last, she will have to forgo roles like Lady Macbeth, Santuzza, Elisabetta (Don Carlo) and ultimately Kundry, Isolde, Senta and Elektra, i.e. roles requiring a thicker middle and fuller second passaggio than are natural to her fundamentally lyric instrument.
Why do I think Netrebko will take on those roles? At least Elisabetta, Isolde and Elektra (the Strauss not the Mozart) are bonafide prima donna vehicles and Netrebko’s career has been built on glamor not artistry. By all estimation, she is indeed a very sensitive artist. Unfortunately, those responsible for developing a career are less interested in the impact on the art form but rather obsessed on the individual as an end unto herself. And despite the fact that Ms. Netrebko is a rare artist, I had to find that out upon reflection and sifting through many videos. For despite her superior talent, she has been marketed as a fashion modal who sings opera instead of a great operatic artist who happens to be a very glamorous woman as perhaps Schwarzkopf before her. Now that she has fed the WOO, perhaps she has enough time and freedom to build her legacy as the excellent artist she is without the tethers of representing pop culture as well. She chose her MET NYE Gala repertoire very well. Indeed she is a memorable Mimi and one of the best Tosca’s around (I prefer Radvanovsky’s sound-surround suppleness vocally) particularly with respect to the necessary emotional content she brings to the role. Her current videos of Turandot on Youtube reflect promise in the role.
Let’s hope she continues a great and steady climb and bring back the idea that an opera singer’s legacy is based on her/his longevity not how much they flash the pan!
copyright 2 January 2020