Grin and Bear It: Why Anna Netrebko’s Smile Got the Critics Riled

A short history of breaking character on stage

abo2 netrebko 170a Grin and Bear It: Why Anna Netrebkos Smile Got the Critics Riled

Anna Netrebko in "Anna Bolena." (Photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)

One night in London in 1734, two opera stars ended up on the same stage. Senesino played the part of an angry tyrant, Farinelli a hero in chains. The two were bitter rivals, but, so the story goes, when Farinelli sang his melting opening aria, “he so softened the obdurate heart of his oppressor that Senesino, quite forgetting his stage character, ran to Farinelli and embraced him, much to the surprise of the audience.”

Senesino, we would say, broke character.

Such an irredeemably tacky breach of narrative decorum is rare in opera today. That was what was so remarkable about what happened on opening night at the Metropolitan Opera last Monday.

The soprano Anna Netrebko was singing the fiendishly difficult title role in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. The final scene began with her achingly beautiful rendition of the aria “Al dolce guidami,” its final note slowly diminishing to nothing.

The audience erupted in cheers that went on far longer than is usual at the Met these days. Ms. Netrebko, who had ended the aria gazing upward, suddenly gave a wide smile, driving the audience to even greater applause.

The critics were not amused.

“Netrebko does not worry too much about staying in character,” Anne Midgette wrote in The Washington Post the next day, comparing Ms. Netrebko unfavorably to Maria Callas. Anthony Tommasini was more charitable, writing in The New York Times that “Ms. Netrebko seemed to break character and smile a couple of times” but adding that “her look could have been taken as appropriate to the dramatic moment.”

Heidi Waleson in The Wall Street Journal: “And when the audience greeted her reverie with applause, she even broke character and grinned.” Martin Bernheimer in the Financial Times: “Netrebko enjoyed predictable ovations, and acknowledged some of them mid-scene with a ravishing smile.”

Why did everyone get so upset about a little smile? “It was near the end of opening night, in a new role, and it was going really well,” Ken Benson, a respected artist manager and teacher told The Observer. “It wasn’t an ordinary moment. My take is that she was saying, ‘We’re almost there, kids! We made it!’”

And after all, even if it’s gone out of style, there is a long tradition of operatic character-breaking.

In a 1976 Met performance of Puccini’s La bohème, the soprano Montserrat Caballé was sitting on stage during Luciano Pavarotti’s first-act aria. “He sang the aria and she was sitting in her chair,” Mr. Benson recalled, “and when he finished she joined the applause.”

For her farewell to the Met in 1985, Leontyne Price sang Aida, one of her signature roles. About five minutes into the epic ovation after her aria “O patria mia,” she dropped to her knees with emotion. The tenor Salvatore Licitra, who recently died of injuries sustained in a motor scooter accident, did a “whew” gesture, brushing his hand over his forehead, after nailing the opening aria in his surprise Met debut in Puccini’s Tosca in 2002.


  1. I think its wonderful the bond that Anna Netrebko has with her audience, and no Critic should say anything about that unless they just have an agenda against her because they are jealous of all of the adulation she gets everywhere. The more often critics act that way the more they will be ignored by the public and their opinion will become mute.

  2. Roger Evans says:

    Bravo. I couldn’t agree more with this article. There’s another story of an occasion in Germany when Montserrat Caballé broke character beautifully. Late in the opera careers of both great ladies Marilyn Horne had apparently gone out of her way to support Caballé in some temporary anxiety about her vocal state for the first night of SEMIRAMIDE. During the audience’s wild ovation after Caballé big aria, she kissed Horne’s hand in acknowledgment and gratitude. Nothing could have been more graceful and appropriate. And any spectator that doesn’t feel honored to witness such a moment between two great divas probably doesn’t belong in an opera house.

    I felt the same way about Netrebko’s small gesture.

  3. Awebern says:

    That Tristan with Vickers was in Dallas during the opening of third act.   I was not at that specific performance, but was at others.  The Isolde was Roberta Knie.  I was in high school and have not forgotten them….phenomenal.

  4. Bel Canto Imp says:

    The quotes from Bernheimer’s review hardly suggest he was “upset” at all. He reports that it happened, no less, no more. Tommassini doesn’t appear to be suicidal about it either and Midgette is mildly sarcastic. Obviously the paper has space to fill…..

  5. Opera lover Rick says:

    There was a wonderful 1975 performance of Tosca at the Met with Magda Olivero.  After Vissi d’arte, the audience justifiably applauded hysterically, in response to which Olivero ever so slowwwwwwwly began to lower her head in a nod to acknowledge the ovation, which only increased as she completely a very graceful nod that probably lasted a good 2 or 3 minutes.  It was glorious!  When so well earned, let’s enjoy the moment!

  6. Gavin says:

    Mr. Clarke et al,

    When will proponents of a singer ever realize that if someone has a opposing opinion, it does not mean they are jealous of the accomplishments of the person about whom they are critical.

    It means that all things being equal, their opinion–as valid as yours–displeases you and possibly brings shame to someone that you admire.

    In matters of taste there is always going to be dissent.

    In matters as technical as singing specific notes and dynamic markings on a page ACCURATELY there is nothing to argue.

    1. Gene Bivins says:

      I doubt Netrebko feels any “shame” because of what a critic says about her, unless her voice cracks or she does a pratfall. She was sailing and she smiled, out of character perhaps to bring the endless applause to an end. Audiences don’t care, in moments like that, whether a singer holds character, or they wouldn’t go on and on with the applause. Get over it, critics. If you don’t enjoy performances any more, don’t go!

  7. reiner says:

    Oh for pete’s sake, Senesino had *contracted* Farinelli to come and sing in the opera company he was *managing*.  They were not “bitter rivals” at all.  Senesino realised that his stage career would come to an end, and was shaping a management career for himself instead.  He was running a rival opera company to Handel’s, and pulled the sensational coup of grabbing the hottest talent in Europe – Farinelli.  He had even given Farinelli the young hero role he himself had sung many years before.  Can’t you do even *basic* research?

  8. Chris M says:

    Of the four critics you quote, only one appears to be upset by the smile, so I’m not sure what the point is.

  9. Joe Pearce says:

    I loved this piece. I really wish Mr. Woolfe would write something like it for the New York Times, where the prevalence of Tommasini-type attitudes of this-can’t-be-any-good-because-it-has-16th-century-costumes-in-a-16th-century-opera, or the-costumes-look-too-real-,like-they-come-from-a-Hollywood-Henry VIII-epic, or the-music-is-totally-accessible-so-it-must-stink-on-ice have been endemic in recent years. Watch one of those old Mario Del Monaco videos from Japan, where he comes running back onto the stage after “E lucevan le stelle” to take a bow (he also does it in, of all things, NORMA, in a late-in-his-career German performance), or even worse for the purists, some Salzburg performances from the 1960s (under Karl Boehm, for God’s sake!), where Reri Grist sings Susanna or Zerlina (I forget which at this point) and comes bouncing back onto the stage after having vacated it, just to take a bow and acknowledge all the applause (as do several other Salzburg singers of the period).  Break the dramatic action?  Screw the dramatic action!  ANNA BOLENA isn’t WOZZECK, and shouldn”t be sung, acted, directed or otherwise interpreted as such.  That is something that Opera People, most especially critics, used to  understand, but has been lost in the Wilson-LePage New Era of Opera, augmented and supported by critics who are scared to death of NOT embracing the avant garde for fear that they will be their own generations’ Eduard Hanslick.   And while I’m at it, Mr. Woolfe was ill-advised to use that line about this older style of appreciation having gone by the boards because of all the fans Opera lost during the AIDS epidemic.  He can take my word for it that straight opera-lovers acted and reacted exactly the same way (and, ironically,  there seem to have been a great many more of them in evidence in the pre-AIDS era than is now the case; go figure).

  10. Jena says:

    Breaking character is unprofessional and takes away from the art. Thank God America adopted the European trend of treating opera as an art form and not a “sporting event”. Opera is so much more than a sporting event. It is, as the article says, “…a cohesion of dramatic values”, and that is what I find most beautiful about opera.