The Berlin State Opera’s manufacturing of Verdi’s “Macbeth” begins with the madly bold Girl Macbeth slowly strolling over a burning battlefield, carrying a sword as she negotiates a stage affected by corpses.
Because the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who sang that position on the State Opera on Friday, crossed from left to proper, the scene was a hallucinatory model of actual life: a strong girl trying to make her manner via a world aflame with warfare.
Netrebko, considered one of opera’s greatest stars, has been beneath hearth within the West because the Russian invasion of Ukraine for her lengthy historical past of help for President Vladimir V. Putin. However on Friday, she was showing in a staged opera in Germany for the primary time because the warfare broke out, the most recent milestone in her return to main cultural establishments.
She obtained a heat ovation at her curtain name, at the same time as she carried out within the face of opposition from political leaders and strong, indignant protests exterior the opera home that continued via the top of the present, together with rounds of chants that her look was “Schande,” a shame.
Inside, remoted however loud, sustained boos have been blended with the applause after each elements of her opening aria. She responded by standing middle stage with arms folded and lips pursed, breaking character to blow kisses to the conductor and orchestra.
After the Russian invasion, in February 2022, Netrebko’s performances have been referred to as off for a time as she gave confused indicators about her place. That March, the Metropolitan Opera canceled her contracts, and didn’t change course after she introduced she opposed the warfare however refused to denounce Putin. (Final month, Netrebko sued the Met for discrimination, defamation and breach of contract.)
However over the previous 12 months and a half, she has regularly returned to levels in South America and Europe, together with the Vienna State Opera, Paris Opera and Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The response has been a mixture of protests (often exterior) and cheers (in).
Berlin, although, is a hotbed of pro-Ukraine sentiment. So her look on the State Opera — she was engaged for 4 performances of “Macbeth” that proceed through Saturday — has been the item of intense scrutiny.
“It’s a tough choice, after all,” Matthias Schulz, the corporate’s common director, mentioned in an interview. However, he added, “I’m nonetheless completely behind that call.”
He and Netrebko’s different defenders argue that her assertion was sufficiently clear — “She used the phrase ‘warfare,’” Schulz mentioned, “and she or he used the phrases ‘towards Ukraine’” — and that she distanced herself from Putin, even when she stopped properly in need of criticizing him.
Such direct criticism, they add, is sort of inconceivable when coping with an authoritarian authorities, as it would expose Netrebko, her household and mates, particularly these nonetheless residing in Russia, to safety dangers. (Netrebko, a citizen of Russia and Austria, lives in Vienna.)
Schulz emphasised that her conduct because the warfare started has not additional compromised her. In contrast to some Russian artists — together with her mentor, the conductor Valery Gergiev — she didn’t stay within the nation, nor has she returned to carry out there. The Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis has drawn criticism for the help he obtained from a sanctioned Russian financial institution, however has continued to be engaged within the West, although he has made no public assertion concerning the warfare.
It’s essential, Netrebko’s supporters say, to not tar all Russian artists with the identical brush and thus play into the palms of Putin, who claims that the West is implacably Russophobic.
But agreeing that every one Russian artists shouldn’t be condemned isn’t the identical as saying that none ought to. Given Netrebko’s stardom, and her documented historical past praising and receiving recognition from Putin, her case is totally different from that of less prominent Russian musicians who’ve condemned the warfare. However, her posture has been that of sufferer.
“She simply doesn’t perceive why she’s been made chargeable for this,” Schulz mentioned.
Netrebko appears to consider that she is being held chargeable for actions during which she’s had no half, and that she has been blamed for her conduct earlier than the warfare greater than, say, political leaders in Germany and elsewhere who did enterprise with Putin. The Met and different corporations have been protested for years for participating her and Gergiev as Russia handed anti-gay legal guidelines and annexed Crimea.
However a lot of these individuals and establishments have admitted that they have been fallacious. Netrebko’s statements have expressed no regret for her help of Putin, nor for an incident in 2014 during which she gave a donation to an opera home in Donetsk, a Ukrainian metropolis managed by Russian separatists, and was photographed holding a separatist flag.
And on social media, Netrebko has saved up her prewar parade of lavish dinners, designer vogue and household holidays — a spectacle that was amusing sufficient earlier than the invasion however feels dishearteningly tone-deaf now.
“Sure, I believe she was politically naïve or silly previously,” Schulz mentioned. “However is that this sufficient to say you can’t sing any extra on any stage?”
Netrebko, although, doesn’t have any inherent proper to be onstage. And but her artistry continues to be formidable. For a listener who had not heard her dwell since properly earlier than the pandemic, she has maintained her instantly recognizable, seductively darkish and heavy sound, with its barely, excitingly breathless high quality.
Girl Macbeth has been considered one of her best triumphs, and she or he nonetheless clearly relishes the character’s machinations and chesty exclamations, even when the highest of her vary is now extra effortful and fewer highly effective. Her smooth singing doesn’t fairly have its previous floating presence, making the ultimate sleepwalking scene spectacular slightly than unforgettable.
Her future will not be completely clear. A few of her performances, together with a concert in Prague subsequent month, proceed to be canceled beneath strain. Serge Dorny, of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, which canceled her engagements early within the warfare, wrote in a textual content message that there have been no present plans for her to look there, declining to remark additional.
However she is scheduled to return to Vienna, Milan and Paris within the coming months. On the Salzburg Easter Pageant early subsequent spring, she’s going to sing the title position in Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda,” directed by Oliver Mears, the inventive chief of the Royal Opera in London.
“At the start of the warfare, issues have been very uncooked,” Mears mentioned in an interview about the potential for her return to London, including: “By no means say by no means.”
Nikolaus Bachler, the Easter Pageant’s director, mentioned, “The passage of time at all times has a giant that means.”
Issues inevitably tackle a Rorschach high quality in these polarized conditions. In the event you’re for her, the truth that Netrebko is showing on the plainly pro-Ukraine Berlin State Opera, and that “Macbeth” depicts the devastation wrought by warfare, is a sort of covert admission of emotions she can’t brazenly categorical. In the event you’re towards her, she is merely utilizing the corporate’s — and Verdi’s — moral bona fides with out incomes them.
As with a lot else in our politics, the battle strains have been drawn, and are wearily unmoving. What has occurred, as Macbeth places it within the opera, has occurred.
That is all actually between Netrebko, her conscience and what she hopes will likely be written within the obituaries when she’s gone. “She did the naked minimal” is hardly the noblest epitaph, and even her defenders can’t argue that she’s proven braveness.
“She is not any Marlene Dietrich,” Schulz mentioned, referring to the German movie star who renounced her citizenship in 1939 and spent World Warfare II rallying American troops via the usO., incomes a Medal of Freedom. “And he or she won’t be rewarded as such.”