Prima donnas: anna netrebko is a suffering material girl

Manuel Brug

"Sola, perduta, abbandonata."Manon Lescaut sings of being alone, lost and abandoned, not Anna Netrebko. Even though the Russian super soprano would have every reason to do so, at least in the eyes of the tabloid press: the long-awaited separation from her companion Erwin Schrott, her son’s mild autism, the headlines about her support for Putin including singing the Olympic anthem at the opening ceremony of Sochi. The likewise unsurprising cancellation of the "Faust" Marguerite in London, Vienna, Baden-Baden and Hamburg, because the role has long since seemed too lyrically articulated for the voice, which has become darker, more pronounced in the middle range, and in the meantime has turned to the youthful dramatic Verdi repertoire.

There was no mistaking this in June 2010, when Anna Netrebko sang her final premiere of Jules Massenet’s "Manon" in London under Antonio Pappano and a surprise success Vittorio Grigolo. The part of the young, seductive, flirtatious rococo girl who is to be bartered away by her brother to a rich old man, but falls in love with the penniless student Des Grieux, which will plunge them both into misfortune, didn’t really fit anymore.

The emotions on display were attitude, the coloratura one could hear the effort, the girlishly tender innocence was clever acting. This dress had become too tight, but Netrebko is a consummate professional. She knows where to go. in the direction of Puccini namely.

The Romans are crazy

Admittedly, one has to go back to the great days of Renato Scotto or Mirella Freni to remember a famous singer who had developed her voice so precisely to change, after the now shadowed young girl flower of Massenet, to the other, more carnal and powerful "Manon" version of the young Giacomo Puccini.

In 1893, only nine years after the incomparably more famous Frenchman, Schrott composed his reading of the immortal, because prototypically gallant seduction story, and with his title character created the first of his femmes fragiles, who are still so important for the opera repertoire today; admittedly, they must be equipped with quite robust vocal cords. Sung wrongly, these are quickly killer roles.

Under the attentive eyes and ears of Antonio Pappano in the royal box, Anna Netrebko makes her debut as Puccini’s Manon in the not very important opera house in Rome. She, who likes to follow machos such as Valery Gergiev, Schrott or even Putin, had allowed herself to be lured by another strict tamer in the circus of opera – Riccardo Muti, who since 2009, when La Scala in Milan had long since become forbidden territory for him after his spectacular departure, had been tied to the eternally struggling music theater of the capital with money and trade unions. With varying success, the premiere was once again threatened by strikes canceled at the last second, there was booing and jeering.

Discipline is everything

In the second performance, however, everything remains quiet, with all the greater shouts of applause at the end. Opera should actually be a joint product, but here the evening is mainly carried by two people. Muti, autocratic and elegant as always, in the pit illuminated by a wandering spotlight under the stucco cartouche in which not only the then opera patron King Vittorio Emanuele is commemorated, but still also one of his successors, the "Duce Benito Mussolini", who strongly supported the house, conducts with powerful sharpness and cutting contrasts, at the same time with a fine rubato flexibility that never slips into sweetness.

The energy and melodic certainty of the young Puccini are thus made abundantly clear by the strict but lovingly shaping maestro’s hand, also his already successful attempts with more complex choral ensembles, with stylistic imitations such as the pretentious madrigals and dances of the second act, the melodramatically effectively heightened harbor tableau in the third picture, and the finale, which dissolves, indeed, in pure, desperate singing.

Here, too, Anna Netrebko always pays attention to discipline. Just as from the very beginning she instinctively develops and shapes her Manon, who is more fun-loving, more worldly and more vital than her Massenet sister, out of small gestures. With a defined musical flow underneath, the role is bigger, more adult.

A hedonist of today

Quickly this Manon realizes where things are going for her emotionally, where opportunities lurk to supposedly improve her situation. She’s a hussy as she grabs for the furs and jewels to leave behind as the police and the duped Galan approach. But she also has the permeability and lacy tenderness for her first aria "In quelle trine morbide".

A short time later, the two lovers united in a duet proclaim the "sweetest suffering" – "dolcissimo soffrir" – seeking to preserve their moment of supreme happiness, before the wheel of operatic heroine fate swiftly descends. And Anna Netrebko lets her audience experience just such sweetest sufferings: with splendidly shining legato arches, rarely secure handling of the text, top notes radiating from a round warmth.

Fascinating to experience is once again her talent to let a role and thus a character become vivid and at the same time her own. Her Manon, despite the historical costume, has nothing old-fashioned or yellowed, she is a consumerist girl of today, wanting to tackle and enjoy life.

Coming soon with Jonas Kaufmann in Munich

Beside her, admittedly, little remarkable in the staid, plush directorial arrangement of Muti’s acting daughter Chiara. Netrebko’s tenor Yusif Eyvazov is an arm-rudderingly robust roarer; only Giorgio Caoduro as her ambivalent brother possesses baritonally a rich agility to hold his own alongside the star charisma.

In June in London, Jonas Kaufmann (under Pappano) will warm up for the first time as Des Grieux alongside Kristine Opolais. And next season he will be joined by Anna Netrebko, directed by Hans Neuenfels, in the "Manon Lescaut" premiere on the stage of the Bavarian State Opera as Puccini’s dream team. Melomaniacs may now impatiently cross off the calendar days until then.

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