Opera singer guards future

Soprano: Anna Netrebko takes things one step at a time, and her next move is the role of Gilda in Washington Opera's `Rigoletto.'

October 23, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Anna Netrebko is the Anna Kournikova of the operatic world. The difference is that Netrebko is an even better singer than Kournikova is a tennis player.

Only one thing may keep Netrebko from achieving superstar status: She never wants to leave her native Russia.

"What will happen there, I don't know," says Netrebko, who lives in St. Petersburg. "All I know is that I don't want to leave my country."

The slim, exquisitely featured Netrebko, with her jet-black hair and eyes and ivory skin, has the sort of face and figure one usually expects to appear on the cover of the European edition of Vogue, not on the opera stage. When she arrived in Washington early this month to begin rehearsals in the part of Gilda for the Washington Opera's revival of Verdi's "Rigoletto," she made people blink in disbelief. But when the 28-year-old soprano opened her mouth, they couldn't believe their ears.

On the the grapevine, the talk is that when "Rigoletto" opens tonight at the Kennedy Center's Opera House Netrebko will steal the show.

That's something she has a habit of doing. Two years ago, when conductor Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Opera visited New York for a festival of Russian opera, Netrebko's appearances in Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmilla" and Prokofiev's "Betrothal in a Monastery" set tongues wagging.

In 1995, appearances as Glinka's Ludmilla and Mozart's Susanna at the San Francisco Opera made her that company's favorite lyric soprano.

An equally sensational Susanna at the Kirov in St. Petersburg in 1994 elevated the then-23-year-old to a permanent place on the company's roster -- one of the youngest singers to be so honored.

Netrebko doesn't make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera until next season, when she will sing the role of Natasha in Prokofiev's "War and Peace" under the baton of Valery Gergiev. But a groundswell of appreciation suggests that by the time she makes that appearance Netrebko may have created the kind of cult that was in place when Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli made her first appearance there.

Her recordings and appearances as Ludmilla (in Glinka's "Ruslan") and Luisa (in Prokofiev's "Betrothal") showed a singer with both roundness and bite: with the ductility to command the roles' ornaments and runs with authority and with the coloratura instincts to dash them off with unmistakable relish.

If listeners could invest in opera singers' futures, Netrebko would be a blue-chip stock. And it's a future this intelligent young singer guards carefully.

Netrebko, as one might expect, has faced a lot of pressure to sing roles she knows her voice is currently too small to attempt.

"I tried once -- just once -- to sing Violetta [in Verdi's `La Traviata']," she says. "I let Valery [Gergiev] persuade me to do it. But even in the Mariinsky [the Kirov's St. Petersburg theater, much smaller than American opera houses], I knew it was wrong. When he offered me Donna Anna (in `Don Giovanni'), it was tempting. But I told him: `Some day, I will -- just not now.' "

`Rigoletto'

Where: Kennedy Center Opera House

When: Oct. 23, 28 and Nov. 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23 and 26

Tickets: Remaining tickets, $38-$162, may be purchased by calling 800-87-OPERA

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