Metropolitan Opera 2019-20 Review: New Year’s Eve Gala

Anna Netrebko Proves Why She is The Leading Diva

By Francisco Salazar
(Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The 2019-20 Metropolitan Opera New Year’s Eve gala started at 5:30 p.m and was scheduled to end around four hours later, leaving plenty of time for pre-midnight festivities. However, throughout the performance, you often wondered if the audience, despite witnessing three short Puccini acts from “La Bohème,” “Tosca,” and “Turandot,” might actually welcome the new decade in the middle of the show.

All kidding aside, this feeling was the result of some pretty questionable interpretative choices not from the primary diva of the night, Anna Netrebko, but from conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was doing his best to turn Puccini into Wagner.

Puccini, Wagnerian Style

Puccini’s music is some of the most theatrical in the repertoire filled with wide ranging orchestral palettes, urgency, and the ebb and flow of drama. Lush melodies are Puccini’s main musical device, but he supports his renowned tunes with fantastic symphonic writing that gives the operas a true sense of wholeness. It’s the reason for their ever-lasting endurance.

But in the hands of Nézet-Séguin, who excels in French repertory and its expansiveness, Puccini’s music is slowed down to a crawl with the maestro seemingly trying to milk the music in an attempt to draw out its sentimentality all the more. While this might undeniably allow for the symphonic layers of the orchestral writing to come to the forefront, allowing for a sense of revelatory detail, it comes at a cost – drama. Puccini’s music fluctuates because the composer understood that drama is about contrast and the tensions that are built on opposition not only of rhythms and harmonic progressions, but also tempi. On New Year’s Eve, the tempi were so slow, especially in the “Tosca” and “Bohème,” that they managed to zap the energy out of these highly entertaining sections of each opera.

But he didn’t forget about needing contrast to express dramatic power – to compensate, he relied heavily (and unfortunately) on another tool in the box: dynamics. In this case, the conductor opted for extremes of dynamics with the ensemble either very soft or over-the-top loud. This also meant overly aggressive accents (especially during “Turandot”) and overemphasis on the brass section. It seemed like he was trying to get the orchestra to hit a home run at every crescendo and forte, which undeniably created diminishing returns and some unintended problems for his soloists.

In many cases, singers were seemingly trying to go ahead of the conductor as they ran out of breath due to the sluggish tempi and overemphatic orchestra. That was most evident in the first act of “La Boheme” during “Che Gelida Manina” where Polenzani’s breath support sounded strained after a while and his volume thinned toward the climax of the aria. And at the apex, Nezet-Seguin pushed the orchestra to its limits covering the tenor and overshadowing the emotional impact that the aria normally has.  In “Si Mi Chiamano Mimi” he did the same thing but soprano Anna Netrebko’s voice hovered over the conducting with its lyrical qualities. The overall sense in this first act of “La Bohème” was that of meandering music with no direction and a lack of cohesion in the ensemble.

It didn’t get any better in the first act of “Tosca” as Nézet-Séguin exaggerated the accents in the opening bar and squeezed out every accent in the brass sections he could possibly get. The jagged rhythms that announce Angelotti were filled with mannered string playing and the ultimate suspense in the first act was sucked out by random pianos and unnecessary holds on musical bars that held back the sense of propulsion this first act often has. More telling was the fact that once Netrebko or Eyvazov left the stage, the entire production fell short of energy and the climatic Te Deum chorus could barely be heard over the noisy orchestra, which, again, was loud but lacking in drive.

In “Turandot,” Nézet-Séguin fared best but his overbearing exaggerated accents caused pitch issues in some of the lower brass. Thankfully this second act relies heavily on its singers and Netrebko had her way, pushing the tempi forward when she wanted. When she was being covered by the orchestra in the climatic choral portion of the act, Netrebko first pulled back with her high C, but in the repetition Netrebko let out the full power of her voice with the second C riding over the orchestra. To his credit, the end of the Act, wherein he expanded the last chord as confetti filled the hall, was a nice touch in line with the spirit of the moment.



The Diva

While this gala was a showcase of Nézet-Séguin, it was Anna Netrebko who stole all the headlines in the lead up. She was not only singing in all three Puccini acts, but she was giving Met audiences her first peak at her upcoming “Turandot,” which will arrive in 2021-22.

But before she gave audiences a sense of what was to come, she went back in time to remind them of what she had done before. She opened the night as Mimì in “La Bohème,” a role she has not performed since 2015. The opera had been one of her early triumphs and on this evening the soprano came in radiantly illuminating a scene that had, to that point, lacked energy. Her first entrance featured a lyrical and reserved voice and her notes floated with ease and smoothness through the lush line Puccini wrote for Mimì, all while creating a fragility and shyness to her character. One saw a Mimì that flirted but at the same time was too timid to look at her Rodolfo. This was most evident in “Si mi chiamano Mimì” as she began the aria with a piano sound. Netrebko phrased with fluidity and grace but eventually let the music take over and her voice soared through the lyrical passage “ma quando vien lo sgelo.” The soprano sang with great volume while still keeping the sweeping line gentle and clear. And Netrebko was just getting started as she never unleashed the full power or force of her voice during this act.

She reserved that for the first measures of “Tosca.” When she came out in Act one of Puccini’s suspense thriller, the voice was in full bloom with incredible power and strength. She was Tosca from the moment she arrived on stage, dominating with her jealous outpours and her lush romanticism and her playful youth. Her chemistry with Yusif Eyvazov was also vivid as they both played upon each other’s gestures from their intense hugs to their fervent kisses. Having just performed the opera for the Teatro alla Scala opening night, it was clear that the soprano was in the groove, with the text clearly delivered. Vocally one could not expect better as her voice blended well into the lines with a brightness to her phrases that emphasized that romantic quality that Tosca first shows at the beginning of the opera. That brightness soon gave way to darker hues during her duet with Scarpia, emphasizing her doubts. If at first she was charismatic and fierce, here she emphasized Tosca’s vulnerability with her shimmering pianos. Her final lines of the act “egli vedi che io piango” were sung with pain and dramatic power.

And once she had warmed up as “Tosca,” Netrebko took on her biggest challenge, the second act of “Turandot.” For most audiences the Russian soprano is not the most obvious choice for the Ice Princess as Netrebko isn’t a natural dramatic soprano. However, the way Puccini wrote the role, the soprano who takes on the challenge needs to have a strong high and low. In the case of Netrebko she proved more than up to the challenge with blazing high notes and a rich middle and low that easily projected into the immense hall.

In her opening “In questa reggia” Netrebko proved an imposing force singing with strength. But her Turandot wasn’t only about power as Netrebko phrased with impeccable beauty and had no qualms with floating some of the notes and singing with piannissimo sound. In many ways, and especially after hearing most sopranos blast their way through the aria, the piano singing proved more riveting than any of the fiery high notes she pulled off throughout the act.

During the riddle scene she shaped the phrases with command but as Calaf’s Eyvazov continued to answer the riddles, Netrebko sang with greater agitation, demonstrating her characters anger and vulnerability. It truly heightened the tension of one of opera’s most suspenseful scenes. A great sense of vulnerability came through in her plea to the Emperor as Netrebko sang with a gentleness and lyricism that also represented a younger and innocent Turandot. And that vulnerability climaxed in Netrebko’s powerful High Cs at the end of the act. In just this second act Netrebko demonstrated that Turandot is more than having immense volume and power but also a more dynamic character.



Strong Support

In the role of Cavaradossi and Calaf, Yusif Eyvazov sang with an ardent sound that showed the passion in these two heroes. In “Recondita Armonia,” he phrased with beautiful tone and dispatched a heroic high B flat to end the aria. His singing in the Act one duet with Tosca was also filled with passion and ardor. He caressed the phrases with such sensibility and sensual appeal that you could not only see but truly feel the love for his Tosca. Then in the Turandot act, it was all about the heroic timbre that showed off his virtuosic and robust high notes. He showcased a gleaming high C at the end of “In Questa Reggia” and then a heroic High B that rang crystal clear.

Evegeny Nikitin also demonstrated a booming bass-bartione as Scarpia particularly in his entrance. He had a snarl and menace in his duet with Netrebko that emphasized the character’s villainy. Unfortunately he didn’t fare as well in the “Te Deum,” his sound completely swallowed up by the orchestra.

In the “La Bohème,” Davide Luciano was the standout as he brought youthfulness to Schaunard. He animated the quartet dancing around and bringing an Italianate timbre that was missing from the opening bars of the evening. Michelle Bradley sang a single line as Liù, but her powerful sound in that singular moment made you hope that she gets more chances to shine on the Met stage.

Eduardo Valdes, Tony Stevenson and Alexey Lavrov were quite animated and full of joy as Ping, Pong and Pang in their extended trio at the start of “Turandot.”

Unfortunately it was not the strongest evening for everyone involved. Matthew Polenzani’s voice sounded somewhat dried and he lacked chemistry with Netrebko while Quinn Kelsey voice thinned throughout. Christian Van Horn was also a victim to the loud orchestra as Colline, a role he has dominated and triumphed in.

This was obviously a one night deal and while not the most fulfilling musically, there is no doubt that seeing Netrebko’s dominant stage presence is one exciting way to end one year and kick off the next. Happy New Year!



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