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“No way am I ever going to touch this.”
That was Anna Netrebko’s first reaction when she saw the score for Gaetano Donizetti’s tragic opera “Lucia di Lammermoor,” in which she’s currently starring at the Metropolitan Opera House, the next performance of which is Saturday. “It just sounded so difficult, and when I looked at the soprano who’d sing this big lead, I thought, ‘How can they do this?’ she adds. “But after singing it at some competitions and concerts, I thought the role was fantastic and found it to be one of the best top roles for a soprano. That’s because it’s a prima donna role — extremely difficult it terms of the singing as well as the acting.”
While the production has received mixed reviews, it nonetheless continues the Russian singer’s meteoric rise at the Met and reunites her with her favorite costar, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón. It is also Netrebko’s highly anticipated return to the stage following a six-month maternity leave.
Netrebko, 37, and Villazon, 36, have a mutual admiration for the talent the other possesses. “Rolando has so much passion as a singer and actor,” says Netrebko. “You can really do special performances with him.”
Villazon, quick to return the compliment, adds, “Anna’s a strong performer with a unique voice. When she moves, she moves the whole stage with her. She’s like white fire and the moonlight, and that distance makes her performances so attractive.”
Like many great performance partners, Netrebko and Villazon bring out the best in each other — on and off stage. “I don’t know where the chemistry comes from — and I don’t want to know,” Villazon says passionately. “If you analyze it too much, it can lose its magic. We enjoy performing together, and our characters come alive through our interaction. I analyze a lot, while Anna just reacts with great intuition, so we make a good combination.”
The on-stage couple began performing together during 2005’s Salzburg Festival production of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Their first U.S. performance, in Los Angeles, two years ago, was in “Romeo & Juliet,” followed by Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Met and Massenet’s “Manon” in Los Angeles last fall, both conducted by Plácido Domingo, general director of the Los Angeles Opera and the Washington National Opera.
“I’m proud of their success because I believed in them from the very beginning,” says Domingo, who discovered and supported both talents: Netrebko appeared more than once at the Washington National Opera before she became internationally famous, and Villazon from Domingo’s Operalia Competition, which took place in Puerto Rico.
The three recently appeared in a “Great Performances” special on PBS titled “Domingo, Netrebko & Villazon: Three Stars in Vienna.” The singers performed at an outdoor concert in front of more than 10,000 people at the Imperial Park of Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace. The program aired first in New York, followed by other markets.
Both performers loved singing from an early age, but while Netrebko decided she wanted to be an opera singer at the age of 15, Villazon first explored joining a seminary and had the good fortune to meet “a spiritual guide” who recognized his true calling.
“After one concert, my guide told me he had proved that my vocation wasn’t in the seminary but on stage. He then guaranteed me that I would one day perform at the Met,” recalls Villazon. “I guess he was right.”
Netrebko, on the other hand, has been singing all her life. “As a kid, I would always be performing. I still remember performing a Russian song about the revolution in a chorus when I was four,” says Netrebko. “Although I sometimes get nervous before taking the stage, I feel so comfortable once I’m there.”
And she can already see the same love of music in her three-month-old son with her soon-to-be-husband, the opera tenor Erwin Schrott. “I can’t sing lullabies to him because he will not fall asleep because the sound of music is so fascinating to him,” she says. “Being a mom is beautiful — I was always the one who was very skeptical about it, but he travels with me everywhere and loves people.”
High-end fashion and shopping are other passions of Netrebko’s, who has a fashion endorsement deal with Chopard and, more recently, a beauty deal. In a partnership with hair care company Schwarzkopf, Netrebko will appear globally in television and print ads for its new Brillance Couleur Intense products, which launch this fall.
On this day, the singer is designer dressed head-to-toe — in a short dark chocolate patent-leather Chloé vest over a knitted caramel-colored dress, paired with Escada high boots, her hair tied back, casually, in a high bun. Even during her pregnancy, she indulged herself in shopping sprees. During her breaks from dress rehearsals, she searched for brightly colored dresses by Lanvin, Marc Jacobs, Escada, Roberto Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana at top boutiques.
“I’m a woman, and I love it so I enjoy dressing up,” says Netrebko, who attends fashion week in New York and Paris, when possible, and was excited about a recent encounter with designer Oscar de la Renta. “I was very honored to meet him — I’m always shopping at his stores. To me, his clothing is art, which I can’t stop collecting.”