The 51st HK Arts Festival

Opera's Superstar Couple to Set Festival Stage Ablaze

Text / Dr. Georg Predota

Anna Netrebko and husband Yusif Eyvazov, known as the "golden couple of opera", have been setting stages ablaze with their deeply expressive and emotional performances for years. They met during rehearsals for a performance of Manon Lescaut in Rome in 2014, and announced their engagement five months later. The official wedding ceremony took place in Vienna in December 2015, and they have since enthralled audiences with performances of luscious musicality and sheer artistic chemistry.

In an interview with FestMag, Eyvazov says that he and Netrebko are thrilled to be returning to Hong Kong for the HKAF in 2023, as they adore the Hong Kong public, and fondly remember the warm reception they received in 2016. Eyvazov is excited that "this time we can also present a recital in addition to a concert with orchestra, something the Hong Kong audience hasn't heard us do before". And, like the rest of us, they are happy to finally be able to come for live performances after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

Destined for the stage

Netrebko was born in Krasnodar, Russia, and initially wanted to be an actress. However, she quickly decided to pursue an operatic career and entered the St. Petersburg State Conservatory. Netrebko started her meteoric rise in the role of Susanna in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. She quickly made appearances at every major opera house around the world, and won adoration from critics and audiences alike. Initially famed for her renditions of lyric and coloratura soprano roles, her voice changed and she turned her focus towards the verismo repertoire. As an eminent critic writes, "not since Maria Callas has any diva created such an impact".

And Eyvazov, who was born in the Algerian capital Algiers but grew up in Azerbaijani of Baku, likes to tell the story of how he first sang in public at a student party, performing "some kind of pop song". His performance made a good impression and he was persuaded to first study at the Music Academy in Baku, and then continue his education with opera stars Franco Corelli and Ghena Dimitrova in Italy.

Eyvazov was a finalist and winner of singing competitions in Capriolo, Montagnana and Milan, and his exciting tenor voice has been described as "metallic, stentorian and markedly Italianate". He specialises in the Italian versimo repertoire, because he "loves the dramatic intensity of the tenor roles as they all have something to say, and some interesting back story. And of course, from the purely vocal perspective, the music fits my voice perfectly, so it's a win-win."

A profound and playful programme

Netrebko and Eyvazov are bringing a "good balance of serious and fun pieces to Hong Kong". As Eyvazov explains: "We want the public to experience not only the more profound pieces, but also ones that they recognise and enjoy." The main programme focuses on the work of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), who set the stage for a new, modern and dramatic form of Italian opera by way of a synthesis of bel canto opera and the Wagnerian conception of the "Gesamtkunstwerk", roughly translated as a "total work of art". His fluid interpretation of operatic conventions led the way for composers such as Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) to engage with the new emotional rhetoric of "verismo". Passionate tension alternates with sentimental languor, and delicacy with violence, especially in the vocal lines of solo and ensemble pieces.

Their recital programme is anchored in the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). Tchaikovsky, as he demonstrated in other genres, that brought Western and Russian musical elements together in his art songs. Always willing to modify the poetic text, he involved the piano prominently with introductions and postludes, while extending the vocal part through rich textures and passionate outbursts. Between 1890 and his departure from Russia in 1917, Rachmaninoff composed more than 80 art songs, all deeply steeped in his Russian heritage. His Romances include some of his finest and most memorable music, fusing declamatory vocal parts with his supreme pianistic gifts. Netrebko and Eyvazov will also present Lieder by Richard Stauss, Georges Bizet, Francesco Paolo Tosti, and duets by Ernesto de Curtis.

Local stars to share the stage

Netrebko and Evyzaov are supported by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under Michelangelo Mazza, and will be joined by local mezzo-soprano Carol Lin. Rachel Cheung, an awardwinning pianist born and raised in Hong Kong, joins Netrebko and Eyvazov in the recital. Known for her poetic and imaginative performances, Cheung is looking forward to the collaboration, and wants to play "as if I'm singing along with the singer, with my breathing perfectly in sync".

Since text and music inform each other in a reciprocal manner, Cheung has done her research to fully understand the meaning of the poetry, as it helps her to "express the colour of a particular note or chord". Cheung explains: "I have always been trained to think holistically and in terms of the orchestra rather than as a pianist," and this allows her to become an integral and vital part of her musical collaborations. Nevertheless, working with Netrebko and Eyvazov still places a lot of pressure on Cheung, "as they are such famous singers, and I won't be able to meet them until a few days before the actual performance". She says she is deeply honoured to work with Netrebko and Eyvazov, and is convinced there will be plenty of good chemistry between them.