Want to Be a Star? Take Your Lumps
by Matthew Gurewitsch
Operatic history abounds in tales of unknowns who stepped in when a star bowed out and emerged as stars in their turn. Thanks to two such episodes in cities far away, the Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya, 33, is now in the singular position of headlining back-to-back Metropolitan Opera premieres of major productions she has pretested elsewhere, both of works by Verdi. If just at the moment she could still use an introduction, that situation is about to change.
"The world dreams of seeing a real-life Cinderella," Ms. Poplavskaya (pronounced puh-PLAHV-sky-uh) said in a recent interview backstage at the Met. "They hope you were washing floors when Luciano Pavarotti came by, and then a miracle happened." If her onstage persona is opaque but impulsive, her conversation seems tinged with a very Russian fatalism, disillusionment and sense of the absurd, sometimes bone dry, sometimes contemptuous, sometimes wildly amused.
Her double-header as the Met's reigning pinch hitter began last month in "Don Carlo," originally directed by Nicholas Hytner two years ago at Covent Garden in London. Angela Gheorghiu had been expected as Elisabeth of Valois, a pawn in the dynastic politics of France and Spain. But late in the game she withdrew, deeming the part a poor match for her voice.
The plum fell to Ms. Poplavskaya, who accompanied the show to New York. In his review of "Don Carlo" for The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini noted that hers was not a "classic Verdi voice." Yet he praised her "luminous singing, beautiful pianissimo high notes and unforced power," adding, "Somehow the cool Russian colorings of her voice brought out the apartness of the character, a young woman in a loveless marriage in a foreign land."
For her encore Ms. Poplavskaya now assays the prima donna's Mount Everest: Violetta Valéry, the consumptive Parisian courtesan redeemed by love in "La Traviata." Conceived at the Salzburg Festival five years ago as a vehicle for Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, whose chemistry was then at its most sizzling, the production was a triumph in the flesh and on DVD. Ms. Netrebko, in particular, riveted all eyes and ears, the epitome of star-crossed glamour in her black bob and sick-rose-red cocktail dress. For Salzburg scalpers, Christmas came early that year, with black-market tickets changing hands for thousands of euros.
Would the production by the German director Willy Decker work in America? There was room for doubt. Mr. Decker confines the action to a bare chalk-white arena dominated by an oversize Swiss railway clock, peppering his take on Verdi's Paris with distasteful Teutonic touches like kewpie doll Violetta masks for a hostile chorus and a leering Popeye lookalike (yes, male) in a knockoff of Violetta's red dress. Still, who could blame the Met for wanting to recapture the sensation? So the Salzburg "Traviata" was duly booked for New Year's Eve 2010. Since the production was announced, Mr. Villazón, plagued by persistent vocal malaise, has vanished from the lineup. Worse, Ms. Netrebko, 39, dropped out, leery of competing with the ghost of her younger self on DVD.
So the Met wrangled Ms. Poplavskaya, who in the meantime has scored a big hit with the Decker "Traviata" in Amsterdam, taking home the artist-of-the-year award from the Society of Friends of the Netherlands Opera.
Unlike her American counterparts, who like to insist on the power invested in the abused women they so often portray, Ms. Poplavskaya sees the world through the prism of a people who have lived through an infinite regression of crushing regimes: "I'm always a victim, torn between a mad tenor and a crazy baritone," she said. "But not only sopranos are victims. In life we all are victims."
If this is your point of view, one answer is to expect nothing, take your lumps and keep grabbing your chances, as Ms. Poplavskaya seems to have a genius for doing. When the crown that a colleague in a recent Met "Don Carlo" had to place on her head settled at an angle, she simply straightened it. "I'm a daughter of Catherine de Medici," Ms. Poplavskaya said merrily when reminded of the incident. "She taught me well to keep the crown on my head, not off. If someone puts it on crooked, I must crown myself. I'm ready for anything."
It seems it was ever thus. A headstrong 9-year-old, Ms. Poplavskaya presented herself unescorted at an audition for the children's chorus at the Bolshoi Theater and made the cut. Her grown-up career began at the New Opera Theater in Moscow, as Tatyana, the impulsive provincial of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" who grows up to become a wiser but sadder princess in St. Petersburg high society.
Returning to the Bolshoi Ms. Poplavskaya took on an eclectic repertory that included, in English, Stravinsky's light, lyric Anne Trulove in "The Rake's Progress" and, in German, Wagner's gale-force Senta in "The Flying Dutchman." Seeking broader exposure she presented herself at the Academy of Young Singers at the rival Mariinsky Theater, in St. Petersburg, but the audition she hoped for with the company's general and artistic director, Valery Gergiev — an international star-maker — never came about.
"They always told me he was very busy," Ms. Poplavskaya said. "I only survived at the Mariinsky a few months. The only reason I came to St. Petersburg was to sing for Gergiev. But if I had, nothing else would have turned out as it did."
Overqualified as she was, she gained entry to the young-artists program of the Royal Opera Covent Garden. The company promptly put her on the main stage as the Third Norn in Wagner's six-hour "Götterdämmerung," a part that clocks in at perhaps six minutes. Then things started happening.
It was around that time that Ms. Gheorghiu reconsidered "Don Carlo" and that Ms. Poplavskaya at last got to sing for Mr. Gergiev, at the Met, while rehearsing for her house debut as Natasha Rostova in Prokofiev's "War and Peace" in December 2007. Though originally assigned to the second cast, she was bumped up to first.
Adding octane to Ms. Poplavskaya's ascent The New Yorker has just published a profile of her under the title "Travels With a Diva," by Gay Talese, trailblazer of the New Journalism, author of the much-celebrated "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," previously unknown as a devotee of opera. His account begins with a naked, feverish Ms. Poplavskaya lying motionless on the floor of her mother's Moscow apartment, felled by heat prostration and smoke inhalation. (After the article was published she told me that she had actually suffered a heart attack.) Thousands of words later, after vignettes worthy of a latter-day Dostoevsky — Ms. Poplavskaya ferrying a luggage cart across 22 lanes of Buenos Aires traffic, Ms. Poplavskaya carefully handing a stunned maître d' two flies captured in an empty glass — Mr. Talese signed off with the image of the five-inch, red patent-leather pumps she will wear on New Year's Eve as Violetta.
What should we expect? Ms. Netrebko, issued a vote of confidence a few weeks ago, moments before jetting off to engagements in Europe: "I think Marina is one of the best singers of her generation. She has a voice that is perfectly suited for Verdi, which is very hard to find these days. I think she is going to be great in this production of 'La Traviata.' "
Studious to a fault, Ms. Poplavskaya fantasizes about becoming a conductor some day or, failing that, a stage director. Of course she has examined Ms. Netrebko's performance closely, the same way she does conductors' scores (not piano reductions) of the operas she sings, the same way she visited the Escorial outside Madrid to get a feel for for the walls, the floors, the energies pent up in "Don Carlo." But she would not dream of copying.
The tenor Matthew Polenzani, who went straight from Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" with Ms. Netrebko into preparations for the new "Traviata," has been struck by how different the two women are in temperament and background. "But they're both fierce actresses," he added, "with strong feelings about what they want to portray. That's great for their colleagues. They make you better."
The conductor Gianandrea Noseda, whose first "Traviata," in St. Petersburg, was also Ms. Netrebko's first, is now collaborating with Ms. Poplavskaya for the first time. And how do they compare from a purely vocal perspective? "You recognize each one's timbre in five seconds," Mr. Noseda said in a rehearsal break, "which is a good thing." He added: "And then there's the texture, which is so different. That's not to say one is better. With Anna I think of velvet, with Marina of silk."
And let's not forget their looks, Ms. Netrebko's so dark and sensuous, Ms. Poplavskaya's so pale and saintly, set off by an ash-blond mane that falls past her waist. Unaccountably Mr. Decker has left the original Netrebko-as-Violetta masks exactly as they were, rather than remake them in Ms. Popslavskaya's image, as his conception would seem to demand.
"I accept that the production was made for another artist," Ms. Poplavskaya said. "It's not the best situation, but I hope something new will happen. Willy isn't here yet. For him what's most important is what you have inside." She added: "He's a master of psychology, like Herr Drosselmeyer in 'The Nutcracker.' If you have the raw material, he can get any color out of you. It's very scary."
Her calendar, Ms. Poplavskaya noted, is booked seven years out, with new roles in operas by Mozart, Rossini, Wagner and more, with A-list conductors. And the productions? Stay tuned, but expect no more hand-me-downs.