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

A short history of breaking character on stage

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.

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