For several songs in this, her much-anticipated, much-delayed Carnegie solo recital debut with pianist Malcolm Martineau, these flowers became props as she sniffed them, cradled them, and held them out in front of her, as if reading a letter. Then she tossed the roses into the front row of the audience.
Netrebko is an operatic superstar, the most sought-after soprano today. Her fame owes as much to her opulent, glossy voice as to her outsize persona, in which glamour and goofy antics combine to easily Instagramable effect. There was never any doubt that her first solo appearance at Carnegie would burst the frame of recital conventions.
On that front, Netrebko delivered, bringing in props, extra collaborators and even a kind of choreography, with such carefully stylized poses that the concert at times felt like a photo shoot. She also displayed plenty of vocal dazzle, with pungent top notes, a simmering dusky low range and a prodigious ability to shape sound like putty, dialing back the intensity on a long note and letting it swell up again.
The wide-ranging program of songs and some opera arias was divided: one half inspired by day (with its complement of flowers) and the other dedicated to nighttime and dreams. What unified the selections was a love of melody as a vehicle for beautiful singing — with textual clarity an expendable extra. Netrebko performed songs in five languages, but without the help of the printed program it was hard to tell them apart.
What felt most lacking over the course of the afternoon, though, was any discernible emotional connection. Netrebko’s singing had much of the photo-op calculation of her staging, especially in the way she freeze-framed a high note and let it hang in the air — like the star-shaped helium balloon she brought on stage after intermission. She pressed the pause button on these notes in Rachmaninoff’s “How fair this spot” and in both of her encores, Arditi’s “Il Bacio” and Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” — in that last one, long enough to draw giggles from listeners.
Vocally, Netrebko smolders. But her performance could feel cold. Which is not to say that she is unmusical. She created lovely expressive arcs in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The clouds begin to scatter,” her voice changing from dark to bright and back again, and in Tchaikovsky’s “Frenzied Nights,” in which her singing grew more impassioned before settling into a tender calm.
And she was beguiling in two duets with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano: “It is evening” from Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” and the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” with the singers hiding coyly behind a feathered black fan. In Strauss’ “Morgen,” with violinist David Chan, she toyed with the tempo to arresting effect.
Two French selections, Debussy’s “Il pleure dans mon coeur” and Fauré's “Après un rêve,” brought out a more unusual side of Netrebko. Her voice took on a milkier, shimmering tone that — for a tantalizing few moments at a time — seemed finally to dissolve the performer’s self and blend it into the mood of the music.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.