Anna Netrebko Storms the Middle East
Works by Francesco Cilea, Arrigo Boito, Giacomo Puccini, Emmerich Kálmán, Giuseppe Verdi, Ruggero Leoncavallo & Antonín Dvorák
Anna Netrebko (soprano), Yusif Eyvazov (tenor)
Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini, Marco Boemi (conductor)
A. Netrebko (© Courtesy of the Beiteddine Art Festival)
Now in its 30th anniversary season, Lebanon’s Beiteddine Art Festival pulled a grand coup in securing a concert by the most exciting singer before the public today. The timing could not have been more propitious. Over the last month a national garbage collection crisis has spiraled into an angry grassroots protest movement that threatens to topple the government. The government itself is in crisis as Lebanon’s parliament has been unable to elect a president for nearly eighteen months and has twice extended its own mandate to avoid national legislative elections. The civil war in neighboring Syria has flooded the country with 1.3 million refugees who now make up close one fourth of Lebanon’s population. ISIS’s reign of terror looms across the troubled border. One should completely understand why the Lebanese, who are not blessed with an institutional culture of classical music, would reach for the stars.
The Festival itself commands impressive surroundings. Its main stage is in the outer courtyard of the historic Beiteddine Palace, a superbly restored example of Ottoman-era architecture located high up in the Chouf mountains to the southeast of Beirut. Now open to the public as a museum after serving as a residence for local rulers, Ottoman governors, and presidents of Lebanon, its beauty has inspired a tale that the local potentate who ordered its construction commanded the architect’s hands to be chopped off so that he could never repeat his masterpiece.
Although an unfortunate man who answered his mobile phone during the second part of the concert was shamed into leaving, no blood was shed last night. Star soprano Anna Netrebko enjoyed the picturesque stage (though not one that could escape the need for a microphone) to showcase her art to a near sell-out crowd of Lebanese fans so enthusiastic that they clapped along to the dance rhythms of her encores. Billed as "the soprano who has changed the world of opera," she gave a fine account of traditional pieces solidly under her belt as well as a few less well known selections that offered exciting insight into possible future directions. The best was her opening selection, the introductory aria for the title role in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, "Io son’ l’umile ancella." Resplendent, full bodied, and energetic, Netrebko’s rich middle register resonated with a passionate confidence safely unknown since Renata Tebaldi. The aria "L’Altra notte in fondo al mare," from Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, rated a close second and again recalled Tebaldi in the role. The chestnut arias from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Gianni Schicchi stood as models of the verismo repertoire in which this dynamic soprano blossomed. The encore performance of the csardas aria -- and an accompanying improvised dance -- from Emmerich Kálmán’s operetta The Csardas Princess captured a wildness of spirit that few singers of any voice can equal.
As the media blitz has told us, Netrebko has acquired a new love interest in the young Algerian-born Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov. The couple became engaged last year and plan to marry soon. The temptation to dismiss a superstar’s newly arrived other half as a hanger-on is often strong, but Mr. Eyvazov’s generous contributions to the program should cast shame on any such suspicion. A muscular, big-voiced singer who channels the greats from Jussi Björling through Luciano Pavarotti, Eyvazov displayed genuine promise in challenging selections from the standard repertoire -- "Celeste Aida" from Verdi’s Aida, "Vesti la giubba" from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and, in his solo encore, "Nessun dorma" from Puccini’s Turandot, the role in which he will make his Metropolitan Opera debut this fall. The less well known aria "E la solita storia," from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana, offered another fine vehicle for this exciting young tenor.
And what would such a concert be without duets? The Act I finale of Verdi’s Otello poignantly ended the first half of the program. The encore "Brindisi" from the same composer’s La Traviata emerged in even more rapturous relief, accompanied as it was by an improvised waltz and clapping fans.
Even the most beautiful tapestry has a few flaws, but here they rated decidedly beneath the notice of the enthusiastic audience. One could offer up the cavil that Netrebko’s second to last solo piece, the "Song to the Moon" from Dvorák’s Rusalka, lacked the searching introspection that other singers have breathed into this late Romantic meditation on love. Though rapturous, the last piece on the announced program, the famous duet "O soave fanciulla" from Puccini’s La Bohčme ended on oddly uncoordinated high C’s, a problem memorable from Netrebko’s 2012 Salzburg Festival performance in the opera opposite the tenor Piotr Beczala. But such minutiae should take nothing away from an absolutely splendid evening in an appealing locale. The young musicians of the Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini should rejoice in their chance to accompany such an outstanding vocal performance under their maestro Marco Boemi.
Paul du Quenoy