By Galina Stolyarova
Photo by Meri Cyr / FOR SPT
The Mariinsky theater, which opens its 2004-2005 season on Thursday, Oct. 7th with Glinka's "A Life For The Tsar," has tailored the forthcoming musical year for its female operatic stars.
One of the brightest, celebrated mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, will sing Lyubasha in a new production of Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Tsar's Bride," which premieres in December. Borodina has performed the role abroad a number of times to the highest acclaim, and is pleased with the opportunity to sing Lyubasha on home soil.
"Being a Russian singer, it is frustrating to feel that Russian audiences are not aware of what has long been available to the foreign spectators, simply because my repertoire wasn't being staged at the Mariinsky," Borodina told The St. Petersburg Times. "Last season, when I first performed Dalila, it was a special experience for me as it brought me much closer to my Russian audience."
Mezzo-soprano Yekaterina Semenchuk, one of the troupe's youngest talents, stars in the lead role in Bizet's "Carmen". Although Carmen is a role associated with Olga Borodina, the Mariinsky has opted to encourage their young and most promising mezzo so and design the new production for her.
Meanwhile the fascinating soprano Anna Netrebko appears in "The Tsar's Bride" as Marfa but her main engagement with the company this season is as Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto," which will be unveiled in April.
Netrebko has already sung the role with the Washington Opera in Martha Domingo's rendition of the opera, and has been invited to perform Gilda at London's Covent Garden and New York's Metropolitan Opera this and next season respectively.
"I never try to portray Gilda as a victim, although directors often prefer to present her in that kind of light," Netrebko said in an interview with The St. Petersburg Times this week. "I don't see Gilda as a 'lightweight heroine' with no guts. Rather, I believe she has a lot of character and struggles hard to retain her love. And naturally, it takes a lot of courage to claim your own life, which she ultimately does."
Although Netrebko is a rare guest in her musical alma mater these days, she considers herself a thoroughly local citizen and has just bought an apartment overlooking the Mariinsky Theater.
"St. Petersburg is my home, I live here and love it here, I just wish I was able to visit here more often," she said, referring to her hectic schedule, fitting arrangements with San Franscisco Opera, Los-Angeles Opera, Covent Garden, Vienna Opera, The Salzburg Festival and the Met. Upcoming engagements include Bellini's "I Puritani", Verdi's "Rigoletto" and Puccini's "La Boheme" at the Met, Massenet's "Manon" and Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet" at the Los Angeles Opera and Verdi's "La Traviata" at the Salzburg Festival, not to mention the Mariinsky.
The star is not immuned to fatigue, however. On her current trip to Russia, the singer admitted to having just canceled a contract for Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" in the United States to allow herself a deserved and long-awaited two-month rest.
"I am very deeply connected with the Mariinsky and this part of town in general," Netrebko said. "My jolly student years and first years with the theater were spent here. I simply love to see it all around me."
There was little glamour in Anna Netrebko's first years on the banks of Neva river. She lived in a notoriously horrible dormitory belonging to the St. Petersburg Conservatory on Ulitsa Doblesti and worked as a floor cleaner at the Mariinsky theater where she was dreaming to perform. Netrebko recalls the past hardships with one of her easy laughs. "God, it was a dreadful place that dormitory, and it took ages and ages to get to work," she remembers. "Cold, poor, near-starving times with 1 1/2 hours each way in doubly overcrowded public transport every time."
Since then Netrebko has avoided public transport, especially in her home country. "Even if I have to spend the last bill in my wallet on a cab ride I would still take a cab - as long as I do have that last bill," she said.
"But it was a good time," the singer said, returning to memories of her first years in town. "I had the dream of my life to keep me warm, and I knew I was getting closer and closer to that dream, which was a huge motivator. Just physically being at the Mariinsky was incredibly stimulating, helping me to turn a blind eye to harsh realities when a parcel from home was just enough to pay my debts only to immediately get into new ones!"
The charming soprano approaches life with ease and a radiant smile. She describes herself as unsophisticated, a person who adores shopping and enjoys spending money. "I stay at home when I have no money, so I don't get upset," she smiles.
Netrebko came to St. Petersburg from her hometown of Krasnodar at the age of 16 to study at the Rimsky-Korsakov Music College and subsequently the Conservatory, with a plan to become an operetta singer.
After a few visits to the Mariinsky she quickly reconsidered her career goals. Netrebko joined the world-famous company at the age of 22, simultaneously dropping out of the Conservatory in her fourth year there.
Not once has she regretted that move, and it was a clear choice between classroom singing and real performances. "I just didn't have any time to study at all," Netrebko explains. "The Conservatory certainly gave me the basics and vocal training, and I am extremely grateful to my mentor Tamara Novichenko. But there came a time when I didn't need school classes but experience singing and being on stage."
The only other place coming almost as close to Netrebko's heart as St. Petersburg is San Fransisco "with its special bright radiant energy that I adore," but the city "is just too far away and too expensive for me to be able to buy an apartment there."
The turning point in Netrebko's career came after she was a tremendous success as Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni" directed by Nikolaus Harnoncour at the opening of the prestigious Salzburg Festival in the summer of 2002.
"Neither myself, nor anybody around me had envisaged a big success, apart from the director who had a great faith in me as Donna Anna," Netrebko recalls. "Basically, I learnt my lines and score and went on stage without particularly high expectations."
But the performance won her much applause, an array of flattering reviews, a list of plum contracts with the world's major operatic companies and a welcome place at every Salzburg Festival ever since and for several years to come. Next year she will sing Violetta in Willy Decker's version of Verdi's "La Traviata", while in two years' time she stars as Suzanna in Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro."
Salzburg Festspiele, a magazine for friends and patrons of the festival, called Netrebko "the miracle of Salzburg."
"Salzburg was not prepared for this: no CD, no poster, no limousine," wrote Festspiele. "And yet she and her voice are the sensation of Salzburg."
The feeling is, indeed, mutual.
"I adore Salzburg, it is galvanizing to be there during the festival," Netrebko said. "I am thrilled to be there. Every day the most distinguished musicians perform in front of the snobbiest, most sophisticated audiences, and you can just see all the snobbery melting down or the opposite, manifesting itself in a revolt - sometimes both during the same show!"
Every day in Salzburg, Netrebko is torn between a dozen shows she is dying to see, desperately struggling to get a ticket, and often failing, because everything's long been sold out.
"I use every tiniest chance to see something there, and I usually watch from the furthest row back," she said, laughing. "I never hold a grudge against the festival administration: I know they love me, and I know if they'd had tickets they would have given them to me."
Netrebko is excited by the Salzburg's atmosphere, with "boos" and "bravos" crossing over in controversial productions.
Festspiele this year placed Netrebko second in the list of divas with prima donna criteria, like charm, style, manners, social habits, appearance and dress, after Angela Georgiu. Renee Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, Karita Mattila and Deborah Voigt were placed lower down in the ranking. For Netrebko, however, terms like diva or prima donna are considered obsolete. "Diva is a word completely out of date and out of fashion," she said.
The times of picky prima donnas have passed, the singer believes. Not using public transport doesn't count. She earned that right the tough way.
"While 20 or 30 years ago extravagance, chic, arrogance and escapades were in vogue and would earn you public admiration, these days such behaviour only provokes irritation," she said. "It would be unwise to play a diva, and I strongly believe the easier you are to deal with, the more respect you get."