It has been a decade since Anna Netrebko last appeared with Los Angeles Opera. At that time, the Russian soprano was a vixen in Massenet's "Manon." Pole dancing and agreeably simulating sex, she may have come across as a little phony, but the combination of her silvery voice and captivating presence made her, nonetheless, the personification of modern operatic glamour.
Netrebko's belated return to the Southland Wednesday night at the Broad Stage was once again impressive, if for somewhat different reasons. A joint recital with tenor Yusif Eyvazov — they married at the end of the December after a whirlwind romance — was quickly arranged. Marco Boemi conducted a pickup orchestra. Santa Monica is the couple's only stop in the U.S. (The concert will repeat Friday.)
As one of the most bankable of today's opera stars, Netrebko, 44, has turned to heavier and more dramatic roles as her voice has grown darker, more powerful and even more voluptuous. She was a riveting Lady Macbeth in a modern-dress, 2014 Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi's version of Shakespeare's play, where she was a convincingly desperate housewife from hell. Britain's Royal Opera has just announced that Netrebko will sing her first Norma in a production by a member of the avant-garde collective La Fura dels Baus.
Eyvazov is an exciting tenor whose sound is metallic, stentorian and markedly Italianate. (He's Azerbaijani, born in Algeria, trained in Italy.) Whether or not with Netrebko's help, his career is beginning to take off. He made his L.A. Opera debut in October in one of the "I Pagliacci" performances. He will make his Vienna State Opera debut later this month in a new production of "Turandot," conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.
This is not, then, an unsophisticated opera couple, which made it a little hard to get one's operatic head around the couple's near hysterical old-school opera spectacle at the Broad. A grand affair, the program was designed for show. The selection of arias and duets came mostly from the greatest hits of verismo.
Emotions were big. Voices were big. Husband and wife sang as if projecting to the last row of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a house a sixth its size. You looked into singers' gaping mouths that, in this intimate space, were like vocal black holes, as if drawing listeners' very being inescapably into them.
The opening orchestral number was "Dance of the Hours," and immediately there were giggles from the audience, Ponchielli's ballet no doubt being recognized from "Fantasia," Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" or countless other parodies.
Netrebko was head-to-toe diva. Her flowing red gown in the first half, her shimmering cream one after intermission, her grand manner and her huge voice made her seem 10 feet tall. Eyvazov, whose publicity photos show a propensity for shiny silver snakeskin jackets, wore more ice than his wife, given the glitter on his tie pin, cuff links and wrist watch.
Committed to opera as contemporary drama, I was prepared for the worst. I can't quite go so far as to say I was altogether won over, but Netrebko and Eyvazov demonstrated considerable charm and real professionalism. The orchestra of local musicians turned out to be quite good, and Boemi a good-natured and colorful conductor. All three demonstrated a sense of humor.
Just about everything was sung the same way, namely tried on for size. Netrebko seems on the verge of becoming one of the great dramatic Verdi sopranos of our time, but she displayed none of that. Her arias from "Adriana Lecouvreur," "Madame Butterfly" ("Un Bel Di") and "Pagliacci" were studiously sentimental. She danced fetching in an operetta excerpt. Her "Song of the Moon" from "Rusalka" was a vocal full moon, rapturous from beginning to end.
With each, she got into character in the most general way and systematically worked toward a climax. Though a little less polished a stylist, Eyvazov was not dissimilar. He went eagerly for high notes, striking most of all "E Lucevan le Stelle" from "Tosca," and an amusingly and intentionally over-the-top "O Sole Mio."
Each half ended with a big opera duet for lovers. In "O Soave Fanciulla," Netrebko and Eyvazov sang the last bars off stage and they still sounded louder than many a singer does on stage. In a duet from "Andrea Chénier" they thrillingly raised the rafters.
This kind of evening has qualities of opera and athletics, but it is ultimately something else. The unalloyed dominance of the pure human voice trained to do exceptional things reaches us in a way that no other sound does. The reasons are psychological, physiological and sociological. At intermission, I heard responses to the singers as orgasmic and atomic.
I still want this heat and muscle applied to meaningful drama, not atomic, orgasmic vocalism unleashed in a recital environment. That seems a little dangerous to me, like operatic global warming. But there is nothing else quite like it.
Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov
Where: Broad Stage, 1310 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday