The Berlin State Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” opens with the wildly ambitious Lady Macbeth slowly walking across a burning battlefield, sword in hand as she moves across a stage full of corpses.
As Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who sang that role at the State Opera on Friday, walked from left to right, the scene was a hallucinatory version of real life: a powerful woman trying to make her way through a world on fire by war.
Netrebko, one of opera’s biggest stars, has come under fire in the West since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for her long history of support for President Vladimir V. Putin. But on Friday she performed in a staged opera in Germany for the first time since the outbreak of war, the latest milestone in her return to major cultural institutions.
She received a warm ovation at her curtain call, even as she performed despite opposition from political leaders and robust, angry protests outside the opera house that continued until the end of the show, including chants that her performance was a “Shame.” ,” a disgrace.
Inside, isolated but loud, persistent boos mixed with the applause after both parts of her opening aria. She responded by standing center stage with arms folded and lips pursed, breaking character by blowing kisses to the conductor and orchestra.
After the Russian invasion, in February 2022, Netrebko’s performances were canceled for a while because she gave confused signals about her position. In March, the Metropolitan Opera canceled its contracts and did not change course after announcing its opposition to the war but refusing to denounce Putin. (Last month, Netrebko sued the Met for discrimination, defamation and breach of contract.)
But over the past year and a half, she has gradually returned to stages in South America and Europe, including the Vienna State Opera, the Paris Opera and the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The response was a mix of protests (mostly outside) and cheers (inside).
Berlin, however, is a hotbed of pro-Ukrainian sentiment. So her performance at the State Opera — she was engaged for four performances of “Macbeth” that runs through Saturday — has been the subject of intense scrutiny.
“It is of course a difficult decision,” Matthias Schulz, the company’s managing director, said in an interview. But, he added, “I still absolutely support that decision.”
He and Netrebko’s other defenders argue that her statement was sufficiently clear — “She used the word ‘war,’” Schulz said, “and she used the words ‘against Ukraine’” — and that she distanced herself from Putin even as she stopped. nowhere near ready to criticize him.
Such direct criticism, they add, is virtually impossible when dealing with an authoritarian government because it could expose Netrebko, her family and friends, especially those still living in Russia, to security risks. (Netrebko, a citizen of Russia and Austria, lives in Vienna.)
Schulz emphasized that her behavior since the start of the war has not put her in further danger. Unlike some Russian artists – including her mentor, conductor Valery Gergiev – she has neither stayed in the country nor returned to perform there. Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis has been criticized for the support he received from a sanctioned Russian bank, but has remained involved with the West, although he has made no public statement on the war.
It is crucial, say Netrebko’s supporters, not to tar all Russian artists with the same brush and thus play into the hands of Putin, who claims that the West is inexorably Russophobic.
Yet we agree that all Russian artists should not do that being condemned is not the same as saying no one should do that. Given Netrebko’s fame and her documented history of praising and recognizing Putin, her case is different from those of less prominent Russian musicians who have condemned the war. Nevertheless, her attitude is that of a victim.
“She just doesn’t understand why she was made responsible for this,” Schulz said.
Netrebko appears to believe that she will be held responsible for actions in which she had no part, and that she will be blamed more for her behavior before the war than, for example, political leaders in Germany and elsewhere who did business with Putin. There were years of protests against the Met and other companies for using her and Gergiev when Russia passed anti-gay laws and annexed Crimea.
But many of those people and institutions have admitted they were wrong. Netrebko’s statements show no remorse for her support of Putin, nor for a 2014 incident in which she made a donation to an opera house in Donetsk, a Ukrainian city controlled by Russian separatists, and was photographed holding a separatist flag.
And on social media, Netrebko has continued her pre-war parade of lavish dinners, designer fashions and family vacations — a spectacle that was entertaining enough before the invasion but now feels dispiritingly tone-deaf.
“Yes, I think she was politically naive or stupid in the past,” Schulz said. “But is this enough to say that you can no longer sing on any stage?”
However, Netrebko has no inherent right to be on the podium. And yet her artistry is still formidable. For a listener who hadn’t heard her live since well before the pandemic, she retains her instantly recognizable, seductively dark and heavy sound, with its slightly, thrillingly breathless quality.
Lady Macbeth has been one of her greatest triumphs, and she still clearly relishes the character’s machinations and chesty exclamations, even if the top of her range is now more strenuous and less powerful. Her soft singing doesn’t quite have the old, soaring presence, making the final sleepwalking scene more impressive than unforgettable.
Her future is not entirely clear. Some of her performances, including a concert in Prague next month, continue to be canceled under pressure. Serge Dorny of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, who canceled her engagements early in the war, wrote in a text message that there were currently no plans to appear there, and declined to comment further.
But she is scheduled to return to Vienna, Milan and Paris in the coming months. At the Salzburg Easter Festival early next spring she will sing the title role in Ponchielli’s ‘La Gioconda’, directed by Oliver Mears, artistic director of the Royal Opera in London.
“At the beginning of the war, things were very raw,” Mears said in an interview about the possibility of her return to London, adding: “Never say never.”
Nikolaus Bachler, director of the Easter Festival, said: “The passage of time always has great significance.”
In these polarized situations, things inevitably take on a Rorschach quality. If you’re for her, the fact that Netrebko is performing at Berlin’s blatantly pro-Ukrainian State Opera, and that “Macbeth” depicts the devastation wrought by the war, is a kind of secret confession of feelings she cannot express openly. If you’re against her, she’s just exploiting the company’s—and Verdi’s—ethical bona fides without earning them.
As with so much else in our politics, the battle lines are drawn and wearily immovable. What happened, as Macbeth puts it in the opera, happened.
This is really all between Netrebko, her conscience and what she hopes will be written in the obituaries when she is gone. “She did the bare minimum” is hardly the noblest of epitaphs, and even her defenders can’t claim she showed courage.
“She’s no Marlene Dietrich,” Schulz said, referring to the German movie star who renounced her citizenship in 1939 and raised American troops through the USO during World War II, earning a Medal of Freedom. “And she will not be rewarded as such.”