“Ritorna vincitor!” Opera superstar Anna Netrebko’s powerful soprano spilled out over the audience. The Russian singer, on her Australian debut tour with husband tenor Yusif Eyvazov, opened proceedings with the high drama of Aida’s aria urging her love Radamès to victory over the army led by her father – a fraught choice either way.

With a smooth, refulgent soprano, Netrebko showed herself capable of an enormous, seemingly effortless power and flexibility, but also vocal subtlety, crafting some superb pianissimo lines. She was a warm presence as she moved freely around the stage sporting a glittering headpiece, giving a breathy account of Ecco, respire appena…Io son l’umile ancella (from Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur) and bringing the first half of the concert to a close, joined by Eyvazov, with the duet Già nella note densa from Verdi’s Otello.

Anna NetrebkoYusif Eyvazov, Anna Netrebko, Mikhail Tatanikov, Elchin Azizov and the Opera Australia Orchestra. Photo © David Youdell.

It was her second act performances that were highlights, however, particularly her rendition of Marfa’s aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride and Ebben? Ne andrò lontano from Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally, which unfurled with exquisite beauty.

Netrebko is a hard act to follow, but Eyvazov acquitted himself admirably in the concert’s second number, Ah sì, ben mio…Di quella pira from Il Trovatore. His timbre doesn’t quite have the refined luminescence of Netrebko’s, but he nonetheless delivered a fine performance and he can certainly nail the high notes. His stage presence was restrained in comparison with that of the ebullient Netrebko.

While his Puccini showstoppers in the second half of the concert – E lucevan le stelle from Tosca and Nessun Dorma from Turandot – were spot on, they felt a little studied and cautious (Nessun Dorma in particular comes with a lot of baggage in terms of audience expectations). But his rendition of Vesti la giubba from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci –  in which Canio dons his costume as Pagliaccio the clown, having just discovered his wife’s infidelity – was delivered with a heartbreaking pathos, and it more than won the audience over.

Joining Netrebko and Eyvazov was baritone Elchin Azizov, who teamed up with Eyvazov for the duet È lui…desso…l’infante…Dio che nell’alma infondere from Don Carlos and a flirty rendition of Lehár’s Lippen schweigen with Netrebko.

While Azizov brought a charismatic stage presence, he didn’t quite have the pinging vocal clarity to give Bizet’s Votre toast the punch it needs. He injected plenty of humour into the encore, which saw the trio come together for Capurro’s O Sole Mio.

Arias and duets were interspersed with orchestral highlights from the opera repertoire, the Opera Australia Orchestra under the baton of Mikhail Tatanikov giving a vividly colourful account of the Intermezzo from Madama Butterfly, a firecracker Nabucco Sinfonia and a beautiful rendering of the popular Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana. With the singers, though, the ensemble was uncomfortable and there were times when potentially magical moments of rubato were dampened by an uneasy alliance between soloists, conductor and orchestra. Balance was also an issue at times (if never for Netrebko) with the large orchestra occasionally engulfing the singers. There were some stunning individual moments, though, such as Peter Jenkin’s haunting clarinet solo in E lucevan le stelle and Virginia Comerford’s rich-toned viola solo in the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut.

This was a beautifully crafted programme – a seriously and sensitively curated selection of wonderful opera moments rather than a ‘popera’s greatest hits’ – and the performers brought plenty of passion and energy to the table. The highlight, though, was Netrebko, who left no doubt as to why she’s considered today’s reigning prima donna. This tour was her first to Australia, but I’m sure the audiences who saw her in Melbourne and Sydney are hoping it won’t be her last.


 

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