In order to raise funds for the renovation of the Lindenoper, Daniel Barenboim invited star soprano Anna Netrebko for a concert with the Staatskapelle Berlin in the Philharmonie. They have worked together before – the result is a disc of Russian songs with the Argentinian conductor as accompanist on the piano.
The first part of the program was devoted to Richard Strauss, and the audience was treated to a very theatrical account of Till Eulenspiegel, in which his musicians could invest their solos with almost graphic narrative purpose. However, Barenboim might be a heavy-handed Straussian and some tutti could have been a bit more smoothly balanced. I had never heard Netrebko sing any music by Richard Strauss and was curious for her rendition of three of his most famous songs. I have to say that I had seen her live only twice – a Puritani at the Met and half a Don Giovanni at the Covent Garden. Since then, she sang Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, had a baby and announced she is going to sing the title role in Bellini’s Norma. Her voice has gained depth in the meanwhile – in the first notes of Wiegenlied, her voice sounded so dark that one could mistake her for a mezzo soprano, but then she floated truly exquisite mezza voce so effortlessly in a way only a full lyric soprano would do. I remembered she had a substantial voice for her Fach, but now I would say that her voice is substantial full stop; Renée Fleming sang the same repertoire with the Berlin Philharmonic and Thielemann a while ago, and her voice sounded somewhat less generous in comparison. Not everything was perfect here – the Russian soprano was not very sure of her breathing points and could be caught short in the end of some long phrases in which she did have an opportunity for an extra breath. Intonation had its dubious moments too, especially around the break into her low register, which sounded a bit throaty and puffy. This would pose more problems in Morgen!, and Cäcilie would finally prove to be the most interesting among the German items. There, she sang with unfailing richness even in climactic high notes. I must say that I am curious to hear more German repertoire from her – it seems that she once approached the Bayreuth Festival to check if they would be interested in her Elsa, but I reckon her glamor would probably overshadow the iffy productions they were showing then. Being a singer who often sings Mozart, she knows how to keep a pure line in “German style”, but more than that: she can make it in a grand scale, and even when not in her absolutely best voice (as probably this evening) always knows the moment to display her “special effects”. In these songs, she never let down in the key moments and easily got the audience on her side; she is entirely at ease on stage and, relying on her healthy vocal production, can sing for those seated behind the orchestra – the fact that she had her back towards the seats in front made very little difference in terms of volume and colour.
After the intermission, Barenboim offered some Faust-related items: a very punchy and here aptly brassy Marche hongroise from Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust and, with Netrebko, Margherita’s L’altra notte from Boito’s Mefistofele. In this item, she still had some issues with passaggio and some low-lying stretches sounded hollow. She was cunning to adapt that into some sort of hushed expressive effect. True abandon was not there, though, and substantial as her voice is, I wouldn’t call it – at least not now – a lirico spinto. The next two items were highlights from Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes. In the overture, the Staatskapelle Berlin gave a tour de force, a true technical display from the string section. It is still a full-toned German sound that allied to Barenboim’s heavy-footed approach in which every little note was milked as if they had been composed by Mahler, offered little buoyancy and grace (even grace in its athletic guise, as one can hear in Riccardo Muti’s EMI recording, less richness of sound notwithstanding). Elena’s bolero (Mercè, dilette amiche) takes some courage – and, with the help of a slightly slower tempo, Netrebko pulled it off better than most. In this item, her voice was noticeably lighter and, although some of the fioriture were on the careful side, she worked her charm in it and offered a couple of commendable trills.
For the encores, a piano has been brought and Netrebko sang two songs – if I understood it right by Tchaikovsky. Barenboim had to read his notes and look at his fingers in some very flowery piano parts for which he had not probably rehearsed. I had never agreed with those who say that one sings better in one’s native language (it depends of which is one’s native language, I would say…), but this seemed true this evening. Only in these songs I really recognized Netrebko’s voice as I heard it a couple of years ago. Here it sounded truly radiant and spontaneous. This is not “my” repertoire and I cannot tell you how they should sound – they certainly sounded gorgeous to my unaccustomed ears.