The Berlin State Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” begins with the madly ambitious Lady Macbeth slowly walking over a burning battlefield, carrying a sword as she negotiates a stage littered with corpses.
As the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who sang that role at the State Opera on Friday, crossed from left to right, the scene was a hallucinatory version of real life: a powerful woman attempting to make her way through a world aflame with war.
Netrebko, one of opera’s biggest stars, has been under fire in the West since the Russian invasion of Ukraine for her long history of support for President Vladimir V. Putin. But on Friday, she was appearing in a staged opera in Germany for the first time since the war broke out, the latest milestone in her return to major cultural institutions.
She received a warm ovation at her curtain call, even as she performed in the face of opposition from political leaders and robust, angry protests outside the opera house that continued through the end of the show, including rounds of chants that her appearance was “Schande,” a disgrace.
Inside, isolated but loud, sustained boos were mixed with the applause after both parts of her opening aria. She responded by standing center stage with arms folded and lips pursed, breaking character to blow kisses to the conductor and orchestra.
After the Russian invasion, in February 2022, Netrebko’s performances were called off for a time as she gave confused signals about her position. That March, the Metropolitan Opera canceled her contracts, and did not change course after she announced she opposed the war but refused to denounce Putin. (Last month, Netrebko sued the Met for discrimination, defamation and breach of contract.)
But over the past year and a half, she has gradually returned to stages in South America and Europe, including the Vienna State Opera, Paris Opera and Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The response has been a mix of protests (usually outside) and cheers (in).
Berlin, though, is a hotbed of pro-Ukraine sentiment. So her appearance at the State Opera — she was engaged for four performances of “Macbeth” that continue through Saturday — has been the object of intense scrutiny.
“It’s a difficult decision, of course,” Matthias Schulz, the company’s general director, said in an interview. But, he added, “I’m still absolutely behind that decision.”
He and Netrebko’s other defenders argue that her statement was sufficiently clear — “She used the word ‘war,’” Schulz said, “and she used the words ‘against Ukraine’” — and that she distanced herself from Putin, even if she stopped well short of criticizing him.
Such direct criticism, they add, is nearly impossible when dealing with an authoritarian government, as it might expose Netrebko, her family and friends, especially those still living in Russia, to security risks. (Netrebko, a citizen of Russia and Austria, lives in Vienna.)
Schulz emphasized that her behavior since the war began has not further compromised her. Unlike some Russian artists — including her mentor, the conductor Valery Gergiev — she did not remain in the country, nor has she returned to perform there. The Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis has drawn criticism for the support he received from a sanctioned Russian bank, but has continued to be engaged in the West, though he has made no public statement about the war.
It is crucial, Netrebko’s supporters say, not to tar all Russian artists with the same brush and thus play into the hands of Putin, who claims that the West is implacably Russophobic.
Yet agreeing that all Russian artists shouldn’t be condemned isn’t the same as saying that none should. Given Netrebko’s stardom, and her documented history praising and receiving recognition from Putin, her case is different from that of less prominent Russian musicians who have condemned the war. Nevertheless, her posture has been that of victim.
“She just doesn’t understand why she’s been made responsible for this,” Schulz said.
Netrebko seems to believe that she is being held responsible for actions in which she’s had no part, and that she has been blamed for her behavior before the war more than, say, political leaders in Germany and elsewhere who did business with Putin. The Met and other companies were protested for years for engaging her and Gergiev as Russia passed anti-gay laws and annexed Crimea.
But many of those people and institutions have admitted that they were wrong. Netrebko’s statements have expressed no remorse for her support of Putin, nor for an incident in 2014 in which she gave a donation to an opera house in Donetsk, a Ukrainian city controlled by Russian separatists, and was photographed holding a separatist flag.
And on social media, Netrebko has kept up her prewar parade of lavish dinners, designer fashion and family vacations — a spectacle that was amusing enough before the invasion but feels dishearteningly tone-deaf now.
“Yes, I think she was politically naïve or stupid in the past,” Schulz said. “But is this enough to say you cannot sing any more on any stage?”
Netrebko, though, doesn’t have any inherent right to be onstage. And yet her artistry is still formidable. For a listener who had not heard her live since well before the pandemic, she has maintained her immediately recognizable, seductively dark and heavy sound, with its slightly, excitingly breathless quality.
Lady Macbeth has been one of her greatest triumphs, and she still clearly relishes the character’s machinations and chesty exclamations, even if the top of her range is now more effortful and less powerful. Her soft singing doesn’t quite have its old floating presence, making the final sleepwalking scene impressive rather than unforgettable.
Her future is not entirely clear. Some of her performances, including a concert in Prague next month, continue to be canceled under pressure. Serge Dorny, of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, which canceled her engagements early in the war, wrote in a text message that there were no current plans for her to appear there, declining to comment further.
But she is scheduled to return to Vienna, Milan and Paris in the coming months. At the Salzburg Easter Festival early next spring, she will sing the title role in Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda,” directed by Oliver Mears, the artistic leader of the Royal Opera in London.
“At the beginning of the war, things were very raw,” Mears said in an interview about the possibility of her return to London, adding: “Never say never.”
Nikolaus Bachler, the Easter Festival’s director, said, “The passage of time always has a big meaning.”
Things inevitably take on a Rorschach quality in these polarized situations. If you’re for her, the fact that Netrebko is appearing at the plainly pro-Ukraine Berlin State Opera, and that “Macbeth” depicts the devastation wrought by war, is a kind of covert admission of feelings she cannot openly express. If you’re against her, she is merely using the company’s — and Verdi’s — ethical bona fides without earning them.
As with so much else in our politics, the battle lines have been drawn, and are wearily unmoving. What has happened, as Macbeth puts it in the opera, has happened.
This is all really between Netrebko, her conscience and what she hopes will be written in the obituaries when she’s gone. “She did the bare minimum” is hardly the noblest epitaph, and even her defenders can’t argue that she’s shown courage.
“She is no Marlene Dietrich,” Schulz said, referring to the German film star who renounced her citizenship in 1939 and spent World War II rallying American troops through the U.S.O., earning a Medal of Freedom. “And she will not be rewarded as such.”