Taking Flight

Anna Netrebko is embracing new repertoire—including her first Tosca at the Met next month.
By F. Paul Driscoll
Photographs by Jason Bell

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Photographs by Jason Bell
Hair by Felix Fischer
Makeup by Min Min Ma
Fashion styling by Rita Liefhebber
Location Go Studios in Manhattan
Jewelry courtesy of Chopard
“It is my way to give too much, but this is my personality.”
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Carmen Marc Valvo red gown; Chopard earrings, ring and cuff; Dior shoes
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Netrebko’s own black jeweled dress; Chopard earrings.

IT'S JUST AFTER 9 P.M. on a beautiful November night in Vienna, and the elegant opening-night audience for Adriana Lecouvreur at the Wiener Staatsoper is going moderately berserk—cheering, applauding and even stamping their beautifully shod feet on the hallowed floors of the opera house. The opera isn’t over, though: it is only the beginning of Act IV, and the show has been stopped cold by Anna Netrebko’s ravishing performance of “Poveri fiori.” Netrebko stands motionless at stage left, leaning on the chimney housing the fire into which Adriana has just cast the poisoned violets, letting the public’s cheers swell and subside before the act continues. Netrebko’s connection to her audiences is profound and her command of them total; she handles the crowd with the generosity of a queen and the surety of a lion-tamer. At exactly the right moment, Netrebko gently breaks her pose, and the audience snaps into rapt silence.

Tonight’s triumphant Adriana—which marks Netrebko’s first local outing in Cilèa’s verismo chestnut—is just one of the high-profile challenges Netrebko has taken on in a season that has been unusually busy, even by the prodigious standards of opera’s biggest star. In summer 2017, Netrebko did her first Aida at the Salzburg Festival; next up were some September Trovatorein Vienna and an eight-city, four-week concert tour with her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, that took the couple to Dubai, Japan, South Korea, China, New Zealand and Australia in mid-autumn. Netrebko’s November run of Adriana in Vienna was followed by Maddalena di Coigny in La Scala’s season-opening Andrea Chénier. Next are Manon Lescaut at the Bolshoi, La Traviata at the Paris Opéra and Lady Macbeth at Covent Garden. In April, Netrebko will return to the Met for her first performances as Tosca in the company’s new David McVicar staging.

NOW FORTY-SIX, Netrebko wears the title of superstar lightly and comfortably. Two days after her Adriana opening, she arrived at the Hotel Sacher for our interview looking relaxed and chic in a smart printed coat. In conversation, Netrebko is succinct yet devilishly lively as she shares her thoughts about the challenges of the new repertoire she is taking on—and she’s disarmingly honest about her own work. In spring 2017, Netrebko sang Traviata for the first time in more than a decade, revisiting a role that had been one of her earliest successes. “When I decide to sing La Traviata at La Scala, last year, I thought, ‘Okay, well, I am not really anymore a Violetta type, but I can sing it better than I did ten years ago, definitely.’ I wanted to prove it to myself that I could make music on a different level than I did before. Everybody loves this Traviata from Salzburg [in 2005]. I don’t love it. I saw [the video] once, and it’s amazing, the production. But singing-wise, and musically-wise, I don’t think I was something very special. I wanted to do better at La Scala, with wonderful Nello Santi as conductor, with an old, classical production that gives me the freedom of singing—where you can just stand and watch the maestro, and you’re creating the music. That’s what we did, and I’m so happy about that.  

“Of course, it took me almost a month to bring my voice back to the lighter, and a bit higher, position for Violetta. Not all the notes were there at first, but I did it. I did it. At the beginning, when I started, I said, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know if I can do this or not.’ But after that, after one week of singing Violetta, the voice came back very easily, and I now know I can bring my voice back if I want. I can again sing light repertoire. At the concert program I just did with Yusif, I sang a Tsar’s Bride aria, mezza-voce pianissimo, which I placed right after Turandot, when I was shouting!”

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Curtain call for Aida at the Salzburg Festival, 2017
© Salzburger Festspiele/Franz Neumayr

Asked about how she decides which new roles are right for her, Netrebko’s answer is firm but friendly: “I can listen to advice, but I am deciding only by myself. It is my risk, nobody else’s. I understand this repertoire can be dangerous for the voice, especially if you are not born as a dramatic soprano. I believe you have to be extremely smart, and your technique has to be perfect to sustain this repertoire—to perform parts like Adriana Lecouvreur or Manon Lescaut. This is completely another planet from Manon of Massenet, or Roméo et Juliette, or Elisir d’Amore. To sing the bigger parts it costs a lot physically and emotionally. You need to be very strong to perform these parts and not to get too much into the drama, which can really kill you, emotionally. I know myself, that it is my way to give too much, but this is my personality. I can’t be another way. But now that I am physically and emotionally more mature, I am strong enough to sustain this. And technically you have to be very, very smart and precise, to build how the singing should be. Otherwise it’s….” And here Netrebko makes a noise that indicates in a nano-second the sound of a building collapsing. 

Netrebko never searches for a word but will occasionally use brief, perfectly timed sound-effects to amplify a point. When the subject turns to her first Aida, she lets out a high-pitched sigh that sounds almost like “Wheeee!” before answering.  “Aida, it is cool. I loved it. Love it. Of all the roles I have sung, it is the top in difficulty. It’s so big to sing it in a good way. When I was preparing that, I checked all the recordings, everything, and I tried to understand why most Aidas fail in the third act. Verdi did almost a trick on the soprano in Aida, because after two acts, which are quite heavy and demanding, with lots of singing, low and also high, above the chorus—my god, the second act, it’s killer—and then suddenly Aida comes into the third act with a completely different voice, which is placed a lot in the passaggio for the higher soprano. Mi, fa, fa, sol, these notes are extremely difficult to build correctly, and if you don’t build them correctly, everything collapses. You will not get the high C, you will have trouble with [sings] “Tra foreste vergine.” You will be in trouble if you don’t prepare a strategy for this act. The aria, the duet with Amonasro, the duet with Radamès—it’s like a non-stop marathon, and your body is saying, ‘Okay, well, aaaaagh—when will this be finished?’”

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At La Scala, as Maddalena di Coigny to Yusif Eyvazov’s Andrea Chénier, 2017
Brescia/Amisano–Teatro alla Scala

NETREBKO SAYS THE VERDI ROLE she finds most comfortable is Lady Macbeth. “That I love. That role was easy for me. I am not a dramatic soprano—I don’t know, actually, which kind of soprano I am, but it doesn’t matter. When I sing this, it feels very natural for me. I don’t know why. ‘Nel dì della vittoria’ is like a warm-up aria for me. It immediately puts all your body in the right position.

“I want to work musically a lot on these things, and I am discovering that—especially the dramatic repertoire—that my job is more about singing than acting, and doing what I need to make the music in a good way, a correct way. I can tell you, I cannot anymore sing like this”—and here Netrebko smiles and briefly leans backwards languidly, as she did so memorably in the mad scene of the Met’s Puritani. “No, not in this repertoire, no. I have to be in a completely vertical position, almost without movement, if you want me to produce sound which will have a long phrase, with the legato, with the forte, with the diminuendo. Everything has to be in this solid line. When I’m learning my roles, I listen to old recordings and old conductors. Of course, Callas for the shape, for the phrases. And Tebaldi! Her recording of Aida is absolutely the top. What she did there vocally, it’s absolutely the top. Those people somehow owned this old tradition, and they knew how it has to be. If you look at these old singers, how did they sing? Ah-BOOM! Come, look at films or the photos of Cappuccilli, of Kabaivanska, of Tebaldi—Ah-BOOM! They stand like columns making this amazing, profound sound that is also very pointed, with every, every word clear.” 

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Roberto Cavalli black beaded gown; Chopard earrings, bracelet,
ring; Jimmy Choo shoes

DOES NETREBKO PREFER a more traditional production style? “No, no. I’m not against modern production. I like many kinds of productions—I like modern productions, and I love a minimalistic production—if it’s speaking about music and it helps the singers to bring the performance to another level of ‘WOW.’ Opera has to be visually amazing, in the big sense—these are big stories, big emotions, and tickets are expensive. The public expects an amazing show. The Met has amazing productions. I am excited to try the Tosca there.

“Puccini is a wonderful composer who is very easy to sing, but it’s dangerous to sing Puccini often. You sing a run of the Puccini operas, and then you find your voice in a not very good place, because his music can take you bigger, and wider, and louder. And after several performances, you find that the voice is missing the point and the focus, because you have been tempted to do too much pushing. I would never put too many Puccini operas, one after another, in a single season. I will be very careful with this kind of thing. That’s why it’s always good to be back to Verdi, which keeps your voice in perfect position, always, always, always. Trovatore, it’s perfect for the voice.

“It is the same with Adriana Lecouvreur, of course. After singing this, I have Andrea Chénier in Milano, which is the same verismo, but shorter, right? Then I have to be back into the shape for Traviata, for Macbeth, you know. And then Tosca—she has never been my crazy role to dream about, as they say, really. So many sopranos sound good in this—it will be a challenge for me to find something for this role which is my own way of doing this—a way that is not a cliché. My crazy role to dream—I don’t know I can think of one. I’m actually happy with what I’m singing—it’s like plenty already! I’m looking forward to Forza del Destino, which is a spinto role, but it is going to be very interesting. And I’m looking forward to Salome, which is in a few years, still. I’m looking forward to singing Turandot. Not often, but yes, Turandot I want to sing!”

Netrebko’s inimitable fearlessness onstage is one of her most striking qualities as a performer. When I try to compliment her on it, she answers with a tease. “I am unafraid, because I have a pact with the devil! I have no explanation. Since I came on the stage, even from my first-ever appearance in a competition, I have had a feeling that something is guiding me and protecting me. In lots of very important performances and concerts, I have this feeling that I have a green light everywhere—an enormous amount of energy to do what I want to do. From nowhere, I know exactly what I’m doing.

“Then, after the performance is over, and everything is gone, I think, ‘What the hell, how did I do that?’ This has happened to me in many, many situations. I’m not religious at all, you know—I’m an atheist, unfortunately. I grew up in Soviet Union. But there is something about these situations—the feeling that some force is coming into you, and you know what you’re doing. I cannot explain, but everything comes to me very easily during the performance.

“Then when the performance is over, I remember what happened, but I don’t understand why it was so easy. Because when I’m rehearsing, I have the same problems and difficulties that everyone has, and I don’t know if this will go or not. And then in the performance, suddenly—ah-BOOM!” spacer 

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