Russian soprano Anna Netrebko strode onto the stage of the Met with pianist Malcom Martineau on Sunday afternoon to face a packed House and proceeded to capture the audience’s attention for two hours with a recital of Russian art songs. Her selection of Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky was a familiar one, as she sang substantially the same program (except for Rachmaninov) accompanied by Daniel Barenboim in Salzburg in 2009. Her Met program was also the same as the one performed in Baden Baden last weekend. It proved to be a perfect star vehicle to showcase Ms Netrebko’s phenomenal vocalism and her equally affecting stage performance.

While Ms Netrebko stayed close to the piano in center stage for the first few of her Rachmaninov selections, she soon began to use the vast Met stage as if it was an extension of her living room. As she sang Lilacs, she approached tall vases of cherry blossoms to take in their fragrances as she sang of happiness in nature. Sometimes she faced one side of the audience, as if to speak in confidence; other times she would be on the opposite side of the stage to humor others. But one always had the sense that she was genuinely enjoying the experience of sharing her gift of art with a crowd of nearly 4000 people (standing room was nearly full). Her graceful demeanor remained steady when she had to remove a piece of paper that stuck to the heel of her shoe and to begin a song anew. She was charming as she teasingly called back audience members who prematurely left their seats with two Rimsky-Korsakov songs left before the intermission.

Vocally, she was in splendid form to meet the challenges of the Romance with her strong technique and genuine artistry. High notes came seemingly effortlessly from the Rachmaninov selection. Her voice moved seamlessly from lower to higher registers, her warm and gleaming tone delightfully steady throughout. Some of the songs seemed to mimic Italian aria style, with slow cavatina-like section followed by faster cadenza. Ms Netrebko showed off her ability to move from slow and luxurious phrasing to fast and dramatic tempo with breathtaking ease while using a variety of color in her voice to illustrate the text. Her voice never “dropped” in transition between registers as she took a quick breath, thus giving the sense of continuous vocalization. She skillfully alternated strong declamatory singing with soft pianissimo to maximum effect.

While Rachmaninov's songs gave us a taste of what was to come for the afternoon, it was in the middle of Rimsky-Korsakov selections that Netrebko’s voice fully began to bloom and catch fire. The Lark’s sings louder conveyed a real sense of joy, followed by a slow and sorrowful On Georgia’s Hills that truly highlighted her rich voice and luxurious phrasing. The following three found her in pensive, contemplative and sometimes sensual mood, culminating with her turning her back to the audience at the end of Captivated by the rose, the nightingale.  

After a dramatic finish to The clouds begin to scatter, Netrebko delivered two of her strongest offerings of the afternoon, Marfa’s aria from The Tsar’s Bride, which she introduced as an opera that is not often performed. One felt she was truly taking you into Marfa’s descent into madness. Summer Night’s Dream that followed showcased her strong upper register as she concluded the demanding half of her program.

Ms Netrebko continued to delight her audience after intermission wearing a new gown for the eight songs by Tchaikovsky. The composer’s elegant style and frequent shift in mood and tempo seemed to fit her voice well, and she pulled out all the stops, singing high notes with abandon while tenderly caressing soft passages. The longest piece in the set, Was I not a little blade of grass? – a young woman’s lament – was a showstopper with Netrebko’s long breath covering a variety of color, tempo and volume required, and afforded her, an opportunity to demonstrate her brilliant high notes. The final pair of songs were a quick succession of lightly-trod passages culminating in outbursts of joy.

Ever a generous performer, Ms Netrebko rewarded us with two encores, Dvořák’s Songs my mother taught me and Strauss’ Cäcilie. She seemed to tire a little by the end, but that hardly mattered to the audience who showered her with flowers and applause.  

Ms Netrebko’s generosity was extended to her excellent pianist, Mr Martineau, who accompanied her with genuine delight and a spirit of collaboration. A couple of times during the second half Ms Netrebko turned her back to give Mr Martineau the floor as he completed lengthy postludes.