By ANTHONY TOMMASI
Anna Netrebko in her first performance of the role of Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday. Her husband, the tenor Yusif Eyvazov, sang the role of Mario. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Anna Netrebko must have felt enormous pressure on Saturday at the Metropolitan Opera when for the first time anywhere she sang the title role of Puccini’s “Tosca.” This is a touchstone of the soprano repertory. Ms. Netrebko, who over many years has been moving from the lighter, bel canto fare into weightier dramatic roles, could have chosen a less prominent stage to try out Tosca.
Ms. Netrebko knew what she was doing. She was a magnificent Tosca. From her first entrance, Ms. Netrebko, one of the opera world’s genuine prima donnas, seemed every bit Puccini’s volatile heroine, an acclaimed diva in the Rome of 1800, seized in the moment with jealous suspicions over her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi. As she hurled accusations at Mario — Why was the church door locked? Who were you whispering with? I heard a woman’s rustling skirt! — it took a couple of minutes for Ms. Netrebko’s voice to warm up fully. By the time Tosca, having pushed doubts aside, beguiles Mario into a rendezvous at his villa that night, Ms. Netrebko’s singing was plush, radiant and suffused with romantic yearning.
Her Tosca is a woman used to getting her way. That she loves Mario so deeply rattles her. Having been reassured by Mario’s sweet talk, Tosca, with a touch of mock despair, sings, “You know how to make me love you.” With melting sound and disarming vulnerability, Ms. Netrebko made this crucial line seem especially revealing, a moment of helpless resignation.
It must have lent Ms. Netrebko confidence to have her husband, the Azerbaijan tenor Yusif Eyvazov, singing Mario. (The Met announced this month that Marcelo Álvarez would not sing the role in this six-performance run, specifying no reason.) Mr. Eyvazov is a husky-bodied man with a voice to match. He sings with burly sound touched with a metallic glint. His big top notes have stinging power.
Michael Volle as Scarpia, the police chief of Rome who lusts after Ms. Netrebko’s Tosca. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Ms. Netrebko was also fortunate to have the compelling baritone Michael Volle as Scarpia, Rome’s tyrannical police chief. Though Scarpia is a sexual predator who lusts after Tosca, he deploys aristocratic airs to get his way. Mr. Volle deftly modulated his singing, one moment spinning a phrase with seductive allure, the next erupting with chilling power. That Mr. Volle has become a major Wagnerian whose sound has a Germanic, dark cast, lacking typical Italianate warmth, just made him seem more threatening, like an outsider.
At first, Tosca proved an easy mark for this cagey Scarpia. Though Ms. Netrebko can be an impetuous singer, I was struck right through her performance by how she melded emotional intensity and musical integrity. When she looked at the suspicious fan, belonging to a woman, that Scarpia had found near Mario’s easel, Ms. Netrebko sang Tosca’s anguished response as a series of clearly defined melodic phrases. Her approach actually enhanced the music’s poignancy, lending Tosca some dignity even as she suspects that Mario has deceived her.
I can’t remember when I’ve seen such a shattering performance of this opera’s harrowing second act. When Mr. Volle’s Scarpia questioned Tosca to find out where Mario had hidden the escaped prisoner Angelotti, Ms. Netrebko’s Tosca proved not just a bad liar but a clueless innocent. Once she realized that Mario had been taken into a side chamber not just to be interrogated but to be tortured, Ms. Netrebko erupted with searing, frenzied horror.
During this #MeToo era, it was hard to watch Scarpia try to ply Tosca with wine, then lay his hands around her exposed neck and admit that her hatred of him was a turn-on. Ms. Netrebko made Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte,” sung with arching lyricism and enveloping richness, both a questioning prayer to God and a private moment of soul-searching.
When, seeing no other way out, Tosca stabs Scarpia with a knife, Ms. Netrebko showed us a woman in a moment of existential realization. Even while carrying out the act, you could see disbelief registered on her face and in the tortured motions of her body: Am I actually doing this? Murdering someone?
She and Mr. Eyvazov performed Act III like lovers caught in a daze of confusion, with Tosca trying to convince herself she has found a rescue plan for her lover and Mario looking like he knows the bullets from the firing squad will be real.
The conductor Bertrand de Billy led a coursing, richly detailed and colorful account of the score. David McVicar’s essentially realistic new production was introduced on New Year’s Eve this season and has been much debated, but I hardly thought about it on this night. The entire performance was excellent. But the arrival of a great new Tosca was the big news.