A certified superstar operatic diva carries a lot of baggage. Not only are there the sundry suitcases, steamer trunks and Vuitton bags that are, by tradition, necessary to transport her various costumes for on and off the stage. There is also a whole freight of expectations, prejudices, comparisons with the past and, in the case of Anna Netrebko, the 35-year-old Russian soprano who is on her way to becoming opera’s biggest megastar since Luciano Pavarotti, relentless media hype.
So when Ms. Netrebko recently swept into a dressing room at the Metropolitan Opera, where she opens tonight in Bellini’s “Puritani,” the expectations crowded in after her. Is she truly trying to live up to her sobriquet as “the Russian Maria Callas” by taking on two of the major bel canto roles associated with her predecessor? (She performed in “La Sonnambula” in Vienna in November.) Can her voice really be as fantastic as the worshipful reviews that have described it as “dark gold on red velvet,” “miraculous,” “lustrous” — fantastic enough to justify the debut of her latest CD, “Russian Album” (Deutsche Grammophon), at No. 8 on the German pop charts? Is Ms. Netrebko, who has been featured in Vanity Fair, Vogue, Elle and various other magazines, truly interested only in shopping and parties?
In a nutshell: No, maybe and no.
For someone with such extensive press coverage, Ms. Netrebko seems blissfully unaware of the rules of the diva handbook. She doesn’t suck the air out of a room with the force of a powerful personality; she doesn’t refer to herself in the third person; she doesn’t speak of her voice in tones of hushed reverence. In fact, she is unimaginably down-to-earth for a very beautiful young woman who happens to be world famous. At the Met last week, unobtrusively but fashionably dressed, she perched in the corner of a sofa, waited politely for questions and responded, in fluent but unidiomatic English, with warmth and disarming candor.
What constitutes “disarming candor”? Talking about roles she was considering for the future, Ms. Netrebko mentioned the so-called three queens of Donizetti: the soprano leads in the operas “Anna Bolena,” “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux.” Then she explained why she was unsure about doing them.
“Those three roles really need a very good technique,” she said, “and I don’t have this technique yet.”
What, she was asked, was lacking?
“It has to have much more breath control,” she said, as matter-of-factly as if she were discussing the morning paper.
Was her breath control not sufficient?
“Well,” she said, twisting her face into an expression of equivocation, “sometimes yes, and sometimes working on it.”
In other words, where many singers are eager to show their strengths and hide their weaknesses, Ms. Netrebko is willing to give an honest self-appraisal in public. She also, in the course of conversation, made a number of jokes about her tendency to sing sharp, and averred that a duet she sang in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” in which she had a critical and popular success at the Met earlier this year, had never been good in any of the seven performances. And she confessed that she arrived at the Met for “I Puritani” — her fourth new role of 2006, after Norina in “Pasquale,” “Manon” and “Sonnambula” — woefully underprepared.
Such candor leads to a couple of conclusions. First, that Ms. Netrebko is a serious artist who is genuinely focused on improving her art. Second, that she is one of the most singularly un-neurotic individuals in the business.
Ms. Netrebko has been cast in the Callas mold not only for her glamour, but also for the warm roundness of her voice and because she is a true stage animal. She is not actually much like Callas, and she dismissed the comparison with a roll of her eyes. But in taking on the bel canto repertory, which she recorded on her 2004 album, “Sempre Libera,” but has not yet extensively sung onstage, she is taking a Callas-like step. She is bringing a passionate temperament that would seem to point her toward heavier roles into a lighter repertory, with beautiful exposed lines and explosions of coloratura that do indeed require first-rate vocal chops.
This has proved unfamiliar territory after a diet of more dramatic fare (like Verdi’s “Traviata,” a huge success in Salzburg and on record), and Ms. Netrebko admitted to having had a little trouble figuring out what to do with the character of Elvira, the heroine of “I Puritani.” But she expressed excitement about the beauty of the music — and about what singing two bel canto roles in a row had done for her vocal health, particularly her high notes.
A singer’s career is like a chess game: moves have to be planned carefully and long in advance. Ms. Netrebko already has a pretty good idea of where she is going. Her visions of the future include Mozart’s Donna Anna, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and even Verdi’s “Trovatore” (which, she maintains, even a lighter-voiced singer can carry off with proper breath support). Those visions do not necessarily include the song recital repertory; having canceled her Carnegie Hall debut in March 2006, she has rescheduled it as an orchestral concert, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, sometime in 2007.
“It is for me difficult singing,” she said, speaking of recitals. “It’s a completely different technique, more intimate than opera singing, and it’s not easy for me to switch. I postponed it. Right now, when I’m young and healthy, and I can sing these big roles, I will continue to do that.”
Ms. Netrebko’s future also includes the release of a newly recorded disc of duets with Rolando Villazón, the Mexican tenor, who plays, so to speak, the Di Stefano to her Callas: that is to say, they are frequent vocal partners with considerable onstage chemistry. (They are to appear together in the Metropolitan Opera’s 40th-anniversary gala on April 3.) However, Mr. Villazón’s voice is not suited to the high-lying, light tenor roles of bel canto. In that repertory Ms. Netrebko will have to go her own way.
Nonetheless, she said, “Me and my manager both decided I should do bel canto as long as possible.” And she has a number of other bel canto operas, like Bellini’s “Capuleti e i Montecchi” and Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” on her schedule.
What about the ne plus ultra of the soprano repertory, Bellini’s “Norma”?
“That’s what everybody says, but it is so hard!” she said. “And it has to be sung absolutely perfect. I was recently in the Met store, I came in there, and somebody was singing Norma just perfect! I cannot say any bad word about this singing. I said, who is this? Joan Sutherland.”
But, this anti-diva added, she does not listen to Ms. Sutherland when she is working on a role. Rather, she turns to Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto or Callas.
Ms. Sutherland “is a completely different way of singing, and different technique,” she said