Delayed by a decade, the moment finally arrived: Anna Netrebko, arguably today’s reigning soprano, made her recital debut at Carnegie Hall. As expected by an adoring public, it was a special treat, an event overflowing the boundaries of a regular recital. For her first song, Rachmaninov’s Lilacs, the diva appeared with a huge bouquet of flowers in her arms, very much assorted with her floral-patterned gown (though certainly no lilacs), which she constantly caressed and languorously glanced at before laying it down in the corner of the stage.

Anna Netrebko © Chris Lee
Anna Netrebko
© Chris Lee

After the interval, she brought in another distracting prop, a gray balloon, letting it float around for the rest of the performance. Also, uncommonly, she invited additional guests to share the stage with her and Malcolm Martineau, her outstanding accompanist. In the first half, the MET orchestra’s concertmaster, David Chan, was the true protagonist in Richard Strauss’ sublime Morgen! Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, self-effacing and full of musicality, joined Netrebko after the interval for a pair of famous operatic duets: “It is evening” from Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame and the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman.

Anna Netrebko © Chris Lee
Anna Netrebko
© Chris Lee

Giving her recital the title “Day and Night”, dividing the chosen songs accordingly, Netrebko put together a potpourri meant to give the listeners a measure of her current vocal range, her ability to adapt to different musical styles and, not least, her proficiency in multiple idioms.

As expected, the heart of the program was a set of Russian romances. From the very beginning, Netrebko brought forward, in the three Rachmaninov songs, her fantastic versatility, seamlessly sliding from luxurious, broad strokes of phrasing to fast tempos, from a powerful voice, easily filling the hall, to unbelievable pianissimos. Her affinity for Russian melodies and their innate melancholy was obvious in the two Rimsky-Korsakov songs – The lark sings louder and The clouds begin to scatter – or in Tchaikovsky’s Frenzied nights. Her voice is not as crystal clear in the upper register as it was when she charmed everyone in New York with her interpretation of the ingénue Natasha Rostova in War and Peace, but her strong, very steady voice is still amazing across her entire range.

David Chan, Malcolm Martineau and Anna Netrebko © Chris Lee
David Chan, Malcolm Martineau and Anna Netrebko
© Chris Lee

Netrebko’s approach to Strauss’ Lieder was less convincing. Despite immaculately rendering their musical texture, she didn’t convey enough the emotions they hide. Her Morgen! was full of tenderness, but one could also sense the artificiality of the construct. For those who had the chance to listen to Matthias Goerne, the evening before, interpreting with unbelievable, eerie restraint the orchestral version of the same song with the New York Philharmonic, the limits of Netrebko’s approach were evident. On the other side, the soprano’s interpretation of the two French songs by Debussy (Il pleure dans mon ceur) and Fauré (Après un rêve) was remarkably imbued with earthy, dark-hued colors and marvelously spun melodic lines.

The biggest surprise of the recital was her selection of two numbers sung in English – Frank Bridge’s Go not, happy day and the aria “Gold is a fine thing” from Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe – both vehicles for displaying Netrebko’s natural exuberance.

The diva offered only two encores: Arditi’s Il bacio and Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro”. In both, she inserted unwarranted long-held notes that distracted listeners from following her nimble coloratura and exquisite legato.

Anna Netrebko and Jennifer Johnson Cano © Chris Lee
Anna Netrebko and Jennifer Johnson Cano
© Chris Lee

Malcolm Martineau’s contribution to the recital’s success was outstanding. Having accompanied, for many years, some of the world’s greatest recitalists, the pianist has a marvelous ability to listen, to let the singers drive while trying to restrain their penchant for theatricality. At Carnegie Hall, Martineau's hands were an extension of Netrebko’s voice.

The intimate and the operatic display of vocal prowess are almost different art forms and few singers have truly excelled in both. Netrebko certainly approached her Carnegie Hall debut from a diva perspective, including grand gestures and rehearsed movements. At the same time, she proved that her intelligence, instinctive curiosity and desire to succeed might bring her closer to the less glamorous and purer “art of song”. Everyone is looking forward for her next recital, that hopefully she will not need another decade to shape.

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