Its musicians are out of work, but the Met is streaming

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Its musicians are out of work, but the Met is streaming
Empty seating in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, Sept. 14, 2020. Victor Llorente/The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The Metropolitan Opera rang in 2020 auspiciously, with a Puccini gala featuring Anna Netrebko, the company’s reigning diva.

But in March, of course, just weeks before Netrebko was to return to the Met as Tosca, the company closed because of the pandemic. It has been shut for the past 11 months, canceling a slew of plans, including a new production of “Aida” for Netrebko, and furloughing hundreds of its workers without pay.

On Saturday Netrebko returned to the company — in a sense — with the latest recital in its Met Stars Live in Concert series, streamed from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and available through Feb. 19. In recent years Netrebko has moved into weighty dramatic soprano repertory. But for this occasion, accompanied elegantly by the pianist Pavel Nebolsin, she presented lighter material, mostly intimate songs by Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Richard Strauss.

From the opening, Rachmaninoff’s “Lilacs,” she seemed to become the young protagonist of the text, singing with subdued tenderness and mellow colorings as she recalled the fresh fragrances of dawn and wistful happiness among the flowers. When Netrebko let go in bursts of full-voiced radiance, as in Rimsky-Korsakov’s exuberant “The Lark’s Song Rings More Clearly,” it was almost startling.

Here were hints of the fearsome intensity and thrilling sound she brought to Act II of “Turandot” for the gala over a year ago. But watching her recital, it was hard not to think about what was missing this time: the Met’s musicians. Since the end of March, the unionized orchestra and chorus, among other workers, have remained furloughed, with talks between the unions and management at a standstill. Frustrations have been vented on social media over the Met’s decision to stream recitals like Netrebko’s while the company’s house artists remain out of work. (The orchestra is planning its own streaming concert, independent of the Met, on Feb. 21 at, featuring the star soprano Angela Gheorghiu; proceeds will go to the Met Orchestra Musicians Fund.)

The issue has been hanging over the recital series, which began in July with Jonas Kaufmann and is a venture into testing whether opera audiences will pay for online content, as well as an attempt to keep fans and patrons of the Met engaged. Many of the recitals, by singers like Joyce DiDonato, Bryn Terfel and, most recently, Sondra Radvanovsky and Piotr Beczala, have been artistically rewarding and sensitively directed. But the orchestra and chorus are the core of the Met.

Netrebko’s recital was originally planned for October, but in September, while performing at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and briefly hospitalized. So it was a relief to have her looking and sounding wonderful. Her tendency to sometimes let a note slip off pitch was a bit more prevalent than usual. But I’ve always felt this criticism was a little unfair. Like many singers from Russian and Scandinavian traditions, she brings a cool Nordic cast to her sound and sings whole phrases with focused tone, saving vibrato for bursts of intensity. So even small imperfections of pitch stand out.

One hardly cares, given the splendor of her charismatic vocalism. Even when bringing affecting restraint to songs like Strauss’s “Morgen” or Debussy’s “Il pleure dans mon coeur,” she kept the operatic fervor stirring just below the surface, ready to unleash in climactic phrases. I loved how she began Tchaikovsky’s “Nights of Delirium” with hushed, milky tone, then slowly built intensity as the music expressed a young woman’s thoughts of sleepless, feverish nights consumed with memories of a lover. And she capped a beguiling performance of the aria “Depuis le jour” from Gustave Charpentier’s opera “Louise,” in which a young seamstress in Paris who has run off with a lover expresses blissful romantic contentment, with a softly shimmering high B.

She was joined by the excellent mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova in a duet from Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” and the famous Barcarolle from Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” During a break, the soprano Christine Goerke, the recital series’ host, spoke with Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, about Netrebko’s future plans, which include Elsa in a new production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” with Goerke as Ortrud. Count me in.

But next up for her, if reopening this fall goes as planned, will be a concert at the company’s Lincoln Center home with its full orchestra in October. A return to live performance, with the Met’s essential artists fully paid, cannot come soon enough.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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