Resurgent Post-Covid, Opera In South America Gives Voice To Netrebko

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Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, her husband, were the lovers in the Teatro Colón production of ‘Tosca.’ (Photo by Máximo Parpagnoli)

PERSPECTIVE — As South America’s 2022 music season came to an end, the final operas at Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colón and Santiago’s Teatro Municipal offered an opportunity to assess how these two iconic institutions are emerging from the pandemic and dealing with their unique challenges. In each case, the music season typically runs March through November.

Tosca with Netrebko in Buenos Aires

Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires’ revered 1908 opera house, closed down for the 2020 season due to the pandemic. The theater re-opened in 2021 with instrumental concerts and concert versions of operas, with reduced audience seating and masks required. But 2022 has included a return to staged opera and a full concert season for the various orchestras and ensembles that perform at Colón.

For reasons that are probably rooted in the economic situation and the country’s devalued currency, the marquee artists at Colón these days are often those who, due to various controversies, have limited performance opportunities elsewhere. This year’s season featured Charles Dutoit, 86, conducting the Orquesta Filarmónica, and Plácido Domingo, 81, who sang in concert with the Colón Orquesta Estable (the ensemble that accompanies the orchestra and ballet companies), among the most prominent guest artists. Each has faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. (Dutoit has a home here and was once married to Argentine pianist Martha Argerich.)

The biggest event of the music season here was surely the opera company’s finale, which featured another controversial figure, Anna Netrebko, singing as Tosca. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine focused considerable attention on Netrebko’s longstanding support of Vladimir Putin and her public embrace of Ukrainian separatists, with a drastic effect on her career. She was removed from planned productions at the Metropolitan Opera, a very public rebuke reminiscent of Volpe’s dismissal of Kathleen Battle. After cancellations elsewhere, Netrebko issued a statement condemning the invasion and distancing herself from Putin, which only served to bring new condemnations, this time from her native Russia. Still, she managed to restart her career and has been singing in Europe. 

Fabián Veloz as Scarpia and Anna Netrebko as Tosca. (Máximo Parpagnoli)

Netrebko is particularly well suited vocally and dramatically for the role of Tosca — a diva portraying a diva. There was some concern about the state of her voice after moving into heavier roles like Turandot, which she sang in Verona in August. But on this night everything was intact and, aided by Colón’s warm acoustics, her voice seemed almost impossibly fresh. Perhaps no one now singing can match her flexibility. She ranges effortlessly from luminous highs to velvety lows. Her pianissimo is unmatched. Her “Vissi d’arte” was a showstopper, a master class in nuance. She dominated the stage at every moment. She wandered into coquette territory in the first act but showed the full range of dramatic expression in the final acts.

The production, which dates from 1992, is utterly traditional and grandiose. Director Roberto Oswald, who died in 2013, was sort of an Argentine Zeffirelli, and his Tosca fills the gigantic Colón stage with colorful pageantry and period authenticity. It’s refreshing to enjoy an entire opera without a single video projection.

These days, Netrebko typically comes packaged with her husband, Azerbaijan tenor Yusif Eyvazov. His Cavaradossi, while not a portrayal for the ages, was appealing. Though his timbre turns brittle when he sings forte, he has thrilling, utterly secure high notes, and he likes to prolong them. He has a large, focused voice and is dramatically effective. The couple was scheduled for three of the 10 performances of Tosca (seen on their first night, Nov. 24). The three principal roles were sung by two other casts for the remaining dates.

Netrebko’s voice ‘seemed almost impossibly fresh.’

For the Netrebko performances, Fabián Veloz performed as Scarpia with convincing power and bite. Argentine baritone Luis Gaeta gave an intriguing, world-weary portrayal of the Sacristan, but his voice is not huge and sometimes was covered by the orchestra. Argentine tenor Mario de Salvo was a fine Angelotti.

The Netrebko dates also came with a different conductor: Michelangelo Mazza replaced Keri-Lynn Wilson, who conducted all the others. Mazza has collaborated regularly with Netrebko, and he certainly held things together well, even if his reading was at times a bit metronomic.

Opera lovers have returned in force here; the full run of Tosca was essentially sold out. The audience is passionate and knowledgeable, with the loudest extended bravos coming from the uppermost of the balconies, populated by ardent fans reminiscent of the loggionisti at Teatro alla Scala. On this night, they seemed especially happy.

Massenet’s Manon in Santiago

With the performance of Massenet’s Manon, which opened on Nov. 10, staged opera returned to Santiago for the first time in three years. Teatro Municipal, Chile’s beloved opera house, has been through a lot. Over the course of its 164 years, the building has been reconstructed after two earthquakes and three fires. New obstacles emerged in 2020 and 2021, when the theater could only generate digital content due to Covid restrictions. Then, for the 2022 season, the orchestra (the Santiago Philharmonic Orchestra, which also accompanies the opera company and the ballet)) was able to produce some instrumental concerts and concert versions of operas, but to comply with Covid restrictions, the theater capacity, normally about 1500, was reduced to 500. The restrictions were removed in October, just in time for Manon, which was presented with the orchestra back in the pit and no restrictions on the audience.

Teatro Municipal faces other issues, however, and at the performance I saw on Nov. 12, only about two-thirds of the seats were occupied. At intermission, I had a conversation with Carmen Gloria Larenas, general director of the opera company, who spoke with surprising candor about the company’s challenges. Much of the opera audience here, she explained, has long consisted of wealthy elites. As elsewhere, this is an older cohort and many, still cautious about Covid, are not ready to return to sitting in a crowded room.

But there are two additional barriers. One is that some operagoers are now unwilling to travel to the downtown area where Municipal is located because of concerns about crime, which has increased in the past few years. And then there’s the politics. Santiago’s mayor, who serves as president of Municipal’s board, is Irací Hassler, a member of the Communist Party. At the recent announcement of the 2023 season, she made clear her intentions to broaden access: “Our main objective is to democratize culture and the arts to reach new places,” she said, speaking of “a renewed look at the theater’s contents and its audiences.”

The orchestra’s first concert next season will take place around Women’s Day, with Chilean conductor Alejandra Urrutia conducting a program which includes a work by Gabriela Lena Frank. None of this seems at all radical: the statements and programming are not unlike that of companies everywhere. Still, Larenas said that a significant element of the traditional audience is avoiding Municipal to protest against Hassler: “We want them back, but it is a challenge.” Meanwhile, she sees this as an opportunity to develop a new audience, younger and more representative. And indeed, the enthusiastic, casually dressed audience at Manon included a range of ages.

Galeano Salas as Des Grieux and Sabine Puértolas as Manon in Massenet’s opera in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Patricio Melo)

Asturian stage director Emilio Sagi’s production of Manon was frugal but imaginative. Set designer Daniel Bianco created a series of abstract geometric settings by moving around simple stair modules, pyramid-like backgrounds painted with Fragonard images, and metallic streamers. All in green and blue, they were effectively lit by Eduardo Bravo. Sagi described the sets as “modern spaces that look at the aesthetic of the 18th Century.” The Transylvania scene was especially well managed. Pablo Núñez’s costumes similarly used the opera’s French Regency period merely as a starting point. Only a few of the men wore wigs. The women in the chorus were dressed as men for some scenes, apparently as part of Sagi’s focus on Manon. He wanted to emphasize Manon’s unique, free-spirited approach as a “woman who moves comfortably in a world of men” despite a “corrupt environment without values” where women typically had few choices: marriage, a convent, or prostitution.

Spanish soprano Sabina Puértolas sang Manon, and her portrayal perfectly embodied Sagi’s vision. Her voice is light, flexible, and focused, with effervescent high notes. Her dramatic range is formidable, and she projects the moods of her character — from girlish enthusiasm to decadent eroticism and materialism — with convincing ease. Mexican tenor Galeano Salas portrayed Des Grieux. His voice is sonorous, with a fast vibrato and secure top. His range of expression is limited, however, with higher volume substituting for dramatic intensity, and he is not a natural actor. Baritone Manel Esteve Madrid sang as Lescaut with a large, nicely colored voice.

Chilean conductor Maximiano Valdés gave the work a bold, melodramatic flavor, and if his textures lacked subtlety, the performance had a charming rustic quality reminiscent of old recordings.

Manon continued until Nov. 19, with a second cast alternating in the principal roles. The production will later be seen at the two Spanish companies — Ópera de Oviedo and Ópera de Tenerife — which co-produced it.