Anna Netrebko fine in Massenet's 'Manon'

The Russian diva returned to the opera stage Sunday for the first time since her pregnancy was announced Feb. 4 and she was spry during the revival of Massenet's "Manon" at the Vienna State Opera. ( AP )

Netrebko's management company did not announce a due date beyond saying she and her fiance, Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott, were expecting their child this autumn.

Netrebko was all over the stage from the opening minutes, which saw her hopping up and down a waiting room bench to the literally "dying" moments, where she expires in the arms of her love - but only after one last desperately madcap pirouette recalling her high-octane life of pleasure that ends in remorse come too late.

About the only physical sign that the diva is expecting was in the cut of her costumes - a baby doll in the bedroom scene that appeared a bit roomier than the sparse pajamas she wore in last year's premiere of the Andrei Serban production, a bodice that seemed less tight fitting and a bell-skirt dress that ever-so-slightly looked to be de-emphasizing the waist.

Aurally though, there was a difference.

Netrebko was in her usual effortless control of the full range this opera demands - including the famous Gavotte that calls for hitting notes sandwiching high C. But her warm voice acquired an extra coating of honey, giving it an almost mezzo-like quality in the middle register.

Not that any of that hurt her in her depiction of a 16-year-old on her way to a convent until love catches up with her. Just like in previous performances, her voice fit the occasion - childlike, tender, passionate and supple in pitch, phrasing and expression.

And not only her voice reflected a transition from prim but flirtatious teenager, to young lover, to woman of the world and finally to a woman broken and dying in the arms of the man she truly loved. Even if she spoke instead of singing, Netrebko's acting qualities would be able to amply capture Manon's voyage from innocence through self-absorption to the final stop, introspection and death.

Massimo Giordano was a more than serviceable Des Grieux, a role filled by Roberto Alagna when the production premiered in March 2007. Giordano's tenor was powerful and expressive, and his acting was OK too.

But for those used to the sizzling intensity generated by Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, her frequent partner, the sparks were lacking. Still, Netrebko and Giordano looked good together and went through all the right motions whether in bed, clutching in church in the scene where she reclaims him from his life as a priest, or engaging in a final embrace as the stage turns dark, and the curtain prepares to fall.

With no such constraints on the other principals, their performances were admirable. Worth special mentions were Adrian Eroed as Lescaut and Dan Paul Dumitrescu as Des Grieux's father.

Also good were Alexander Kaimbacher as Guillot de Morfontaine; Clemens Unterreiner as Bretigny; Ileana Tonca as Poussette; Sophie Marilley as Javotte and Zoryana Kusphler as Rosette.

Conductor Claude Schnitzler and his orchestra delivered power when called for - as in the bustling opening scene where all stops were opened with their boisterous musical underpinning - and alternated string-quartet-like pathos where needed.

Serban and stage manager Peter Pabst transform the action from the 19th century into the Paris of the Roaring '20s - a good move, resulting in scenes staged with light projections and cardboard cutout figures and onstage visuals that complemented the principals, without upstaging them.

Netrebko is slated to perform in Bellini's "I Capuleti e I Montecchi" at Paris Opera from May 24 to June 15 - probably her last appearance on the opera stage before the happy day. Her last performance before her pregnancy leave is a concert with Placido Domingo at Villazon at Vienna's Schoenbrunn Palace on June 27.

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