Monday, April 10, 2006

The Dawning of Anna Netrebko

Don Pasquale
Composed by Gaetano Donizetti
Conducted by Maurizio Benini
Starring Anna Netrebko, Simone Alaimo, Juan Diego Florez, Mariusz Kwiecien
Through April 28, 2006
The Metropolitan Opera

ImageIn the rarefied world of opera, where the cliché of the "fat lady singing" still holds sway among even those who should know better, it's hard for some fans to take Russian soprano Anna Netrebko seriously.

She's much too beautiful to be that good, right? She can't be such a terrific singer, a superb stage actress, and a fantastic personality, as well as thin and lovely to boot, right? It's just not possible!

Well, it is possible. Anyone who has heard Netrebko since she first sang at the Metropolitan Opera House with the visiting Kirov Opera in 1998 knows that. Everyone who's currently hearing Netrebko bring down the Met Opera House in the role of Norina in Donizetti's comic romp Don Pasquale certainly knows that.

And for those who have followed her meteoric career rise--on magazine covers, through "60 Minutes" profiles, hit CDs and DVDs--knows that Netrebko is artistically the real deal, and only incidentally a much-needed cover girl for a moribund classical music industry.

This is not the place to go off on a tangent about why the classical and opera industries need saving, even by a raven-haired vixen from south Russia. Instead, praise needs to be directed towards the Metropolitan Opera, which has finally found ways to present who will probably be its star attraction for the next several seasons in roles and productions that favor her genuine musicianship and stylish stage presence.

The first time the Met itself presented Netrebko, it was in the 2002 premiere of Prokofiev's gargantuan War and Peace, based on Tolstoy's epic novel. The role of Natasha was pivotal if not particularly large, and Netrebko dispatched it with charming ease and grace.

Last season, the Met brought her back as Musetta in Puccini's beloved La Boheme, and earlier this season as Gilda in Verdi's tragic Rigoletto. Both of these roles were perfect vehicles for Netrebko's colorful singing, especially her ability to hit the top notes perfectly.

Now the Met unveils a new production of Donizetti's comic crowd-pleaser which, ironically, hasn't been heard in the house in decades. Netrebko's turn as the comically duplicitous Norina--who plots with the elderly bachelor Don Pasquale's doctor, Malatesta, to rope the Don into a marriage he'll never forget, all so she can finally wed her beloved Ernesto, also Pasquale's nephew--is front and center of Otto Schenk's delightfully old-fashioned staging, which has wonderful sets and costumes by Rolf Langenfass and subtle lighting design by Duane Schuler.

Conductor Maurizio Benini--who replaced an ailing James Levine on the podium--deftly shapes a clear reading of Donizetti's bubbly score, and he is abetted by a truly first-rate cast. Italian bass-baritone Simone Alaimo is a delectably funny Pasquale, catching all the brattiness of this old but childish fool. As his nephew Ernesto, Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez has a charismatic presence and a reedy but flexible voice. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is a powerhouse, vocally and histrionically as Dr. Malatesta.

But even in such heady company, Netrebko shines brightly. From her first entrance--lying in a recliner on a terrace reading a trite romance--Netrebko seizes Norina as her own, showing a flirty, sexy side that defines the character immediately for the audience.

When she goes through various mutations as Pasquale's new "wife," Netrebko is hilarious as well as vocally compelling. She also fits in with the three men as a perfect ensemble, whether it's her lovely duet with Florez in Act 3, Scene 2, or the sparklingly comedic finale to the opera as Pasquale realizes he's been had and the quartet sings about the trouble old men ask for when they marry so late.

If you haven't yet been able to see Netrebko live and in action, don't despair: her recording career is also in full swing, with a new release (on Deutsche Grammophon) of her scintillating turn as Violetta in "La Traviata" at last summer's Salzburg festival. Indeed, the recording has proven so popular that DG has seen fit to release a single-disc sampler of the whole opera. Here's hoping the entire performance--which was filmed–will soon appear on DVD.

Next season at the Met, Netrebko moves further into superstar territory, as she sings the lead in Bellini's I Puritani and is featured along with Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon in a spring gala celebrating the company's 40th anniversary at Lincoln Center. In a future season, she will sing the heroines in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman.

There's no looking back for the soprano discovered washing floors at the Kirov Opera House in St. Petersburg, Russia: her world domination continues.

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