Opera Review: Netrebko, Villazón Disappointing in Met's "Lucia di Lammermoor"

Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko, here in dress rehearsal, displayed ardent but strained singing as the Met's
Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko, here in dress rehearsal, displayed ardent but strained singing as the Met's "Lucia di Lammermoor" leads. (By Ken Howard -- Metropolitan Opera)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

NEW YORK -- Anna Netrebko returned from maternity leave on Monday to take on "Lucia di Lammermoor" for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera. She reunited with Rolando Villazón, who hadn't sung at the Met for two years and who took off several months for what he described to one interviewer as a "physical and vocal collapse."

You could say there were a lot of expectations.

Unfortunately, they weren't met.

In place of ardent, full-voiced floods of sound, what the audience heard was ardent, not-very-full-voiced singing, which warmed up into a semblance of abandon but was marred -- on both sides -- by some less-than-successful high notes.

Bel canto singing has never been Netrebko's strong suit. At its best, her voice is a light but full soprano with a quality of rounded darkness that lends extra communicative weight to her limpid high notes. Monday night, after she wandered onstage -- even her fans appeared unsure it was her at first -- she sang with a voice that sounded thinner and paler: a column of sound that lacked a pedestal. There was, at most, a sense of accuracy; you could hear a singer giving a guarded performance, when what you wanted was to hear Lucia. Netrebko's great calling card has been that she is a singing actress, so it is not too much to expect that she will engage in some acting.

But Villazón's entrance seemed to free her up; her voice strengthened and began to take flight a bit more, possibly because she often does well when singing with an onstage partner, and possibly because Villazón seemed even more nervous than she was.

Villazón was under perhaps even greater stress, since he had appeared to wear out his voice through over-singing before his enforced rest. Monday night's performance, alas, did little to reassure that he has actually recovered. Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, came onstage before the last act and announced that the tenor was "not feeling well" but would continue. One should, perhaps, give Villazón the benefit of the doubt, except that the strained quality of his singing sounded so much in keeping with how it was before his time off. The voice sounded thin, and hoarse on many high notes (some of which he barely sang); some of his music was transposed down; and at a climactic point in the second act, he had to stop, clear his throat, and give his note another try in order to get it at all. What made it so sad is that Villazón is quite a wonderful artist: He sang his heart out and was genuinely moving in his final aria, which his vocal problems arguably gave an extra dose of pathos.

Under these circumstances, the baritone and the bass emerged like the proverbial bride who looks better through having ugly bridesmaids. Mariusz Kwiecien, as Lucia's cruel brother Enrico, has an impressive voice but never does much interesting with it beyond barking out his notes and making stock opera-singer gestures of menace. Ildar Abdrazakov, as the well-meaning chaplain Raimondo, has grown impressively as a singer of elegance and refinement and, unusual for a bass, impressive top notes. In the role of Alisa, often nearly forgotten, Michaela Martens took advantage of the vocal weakness of the leads to produce some startlingly stentorian, prima-donna-sounding notes at the conclusion of Act 2. The journeyman conductor Marco Armiliato kept everything moving and was sensitive to the needs of the unusually needy singers.

Netrebko certainly warmed up; her singing was more enjoyable in the famous Mad Scene. It wasn't very precise, her passagework was sloppy, and she effectively shot herself in the foot by singing notably flat on all her final high notes -- leading one to question whether they were still in her arsenal at all. But given the variable nature of voices, and Netrebko's innate ability, it could be that the performance will be in much better shape by the time the Met broadcasts it to movie theaters on Feb. 7.

It remains open to question exactly what kind of expectations Netrebko is facing. The mood in the auditorium on Monday night was surprisingly, well, Monday-ish for a night featuring the return of two supposedly big stars. It made me wonder about the hothouse opera careers we see more and more of these days, as singers push themselves to the limits of their physical endurance and fade from view more and more quickly. Rather than forging abiding relationships with the stars they love, the audience savors the sweet smells and bright colors, and moves on to new blossoms when the old ones have faded. I hope that Netrebko proves, instead, to be a perennial.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company