Get Anna Netrebko going on the subject of how difficult it is to sing the title role of "Anna Bolena," and you might wonder why she ever took it on.
"It's like nothing I've ever done before! You're practically shouting in the lower register for half the opera," the Russian soprano said in an interview. "He wants that nasty, chesty voice — he wants it to sound uncomfortable!"
"He" is Gaetano Donizetti, the Italian composer whose 1830 bel canto masterpiece is currently being performed at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time.
Sitting in a lounge at the Met two days after she opened the season on Sept. 26, Netrebko demonstrated one particularly treacherous low-lying passage. It comes almost at the end of the opera, as the second wife of King Henry VIII prepares to meet the executioner's ax.
"Manca solo a compire il delitto d'Anna il sangue, e versato sara" ("The only thing lacking to complete the crime is Anne's blood, and it will be shed"), she sang, her voice coming to rest on B-flat below middle C.
"It's too much! Too hard on my voice at that point," she exclaimed.
So, like many sopranos who have sung the role — though not Maria Callas in her landmark 1957 recording from La Scala — Netrebko uses an alternate version that moves the ending of that phrase upward. It's a minor adjustment that most listeners never notice, but it eases her way into her final solo, a blazing cabaletta full of tricky runs, trills and plenty of high notes.
On opening night, the house erupted as the curtain fell and Netrebko received a standing ovation. Many critics were lavish in their praise, though some faulted her for stylistic shortcomings. This reviewer found that her portrayal gained in strength through the evening, culminating in a spectacular final scene.
Opera fans worldwide will be able to judge for themselves on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 15, when the production is broadcast live from the Met in HD to movie theaters in the U.S. and 53 other countries — including, for the first time, Netrebko's native Russia.
Quite apart from her first Met opening night, 2011 is shaping up as a banner year for Netrebko, who turned 40 last month. Her recording label, Deutsche Grammophon, has just released a CD compilation of excerpts from her previous roles at the Met. This month she makes her Carnegie Hall recital debut, and in December she debuts at La Scala, opening the season as Donna Anna in Mozart's "Don Giovanni."
She'll be back at the Met in the spring for another new production, also set for a HD broadcast: Massenet's "Manon."
For the future, Netrebko rattles off a list of new roles she is taking on: Leonore in Verdi's "Il Trovatore"; Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin"; Puccini's "Manon Lescaut"; and Elsa in Wagner's "Lohengrin."
But for now, her newest role is occupying all her attention. It's clear that despite its many challenges — or maybe because of them — Netrebko relishes performing "Anna Bolena."
"It's asking so much of the nerves, the body, the emotion," she said, her eyes alight with excitement. "There's so much hatred! I never thought I could be so angry."
She particularly enjoys the great confrontation scene with Jane Seymour (Giovanna in the opera), her lady in waiting who has been conducting a secret affair with Henry.
"She is my friend, and she has betrayed me," Netrebko said. "Suddenly I hate her! But it's a beautiful hatred."
Reminded that the scene ends with Anna telling Giovanna she forgives her and blames only Henry, Netrebko shakes her head emphatically. "No, I don't forgive her!" she insisted. "I don't believe that for a moment."
Anger informs much of Netrebko's behavior in this David McVicar production. At one point she rushes toward her husband with fists raised and tries to assault him. Earlier, when Henry rudely dismisses her as he heads off on a hunt, she plants a kiss on his lips — in context, a desperate and defiant act.
"That kiss was my idea," she said. "The scene needs a little punch at the end."
One unscripted moment on opening night came at the end of a mournful aria early in the final scene in which, her mind wandering, she imagines herself back in her childhood home. Netrebko gave an exquisite account, and the audience responded with a prolonged ovation.
Then, violating the custom that says singers shouldn't break character by acknowledging applause in mid-performance, Netrebko allowed herself an unmistakable smile.
"Oh, you saw it?" she gasps in mock horror. "I shouldn't do that? I was just smiling to the maestro (conductor Marco Armiliato). My way of saying, 'We did it!'"
For his part, Armiliato recalls smiling back at her enthusiastically.
"We had our little moment," he said in a telephone interview.
"Actually, I found it cute. I mean, she's a great diva, a superstar — but don't forget, she's human!"
Where to find theaters showing the HD broadcast: