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Anna Netrebko Performs at the Olympics Opening Ceremony

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Ready or not, Russia kicked off the Winter Olympics on Friday in the resort city of Sochi with a sumptuous historical pageant scored to a number of the country’s great composers, and featuring appearances by soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev.

Netrebko, wearing an elaborate light-blue gown, provided the night's biggest musical star power, singing the customary Olympic Anthem in Russian. Backing her was a men's choir and a taped orchestra, creating an image vaguely reminiscent of Renée Fleming's recent national anthem performance at the Super Bowl. Microphones and a nearby music stand seemed to assure viewers that this was live, not lip-synced.

Moments earlier, Gergiev, Russia's other major classical star and a close friend of President Vladimir Putin, was one of six national celebrities to carry in the Olympic flag to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Festival Coronation March. The white-clad Gergiev smiled slightly as he filed through Fisht Olympic Stadium alongside Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. 

The ceremony was called "Dreams of Russia," and its Russian history lesson came amid present-day controversies over gay rights violations, environmental issues, allegations of poor preparations and terrorism concerns.

Event creative producer Konstantin Ernst had told reporters beforehand that classical music would help frame the spectacle. "Unfortunately, unlike London, we cannot boast a plethora of famous world-known pop performers," he said, referring to the London 2012 Olympics. "This is why we are now focusing on what Russia is best known for musically around the world; namely, classical music."

Getty Images/Ryan Pierse

Ben Finane, editor in chief of Listen magazine, said the show "felt more like tasteful grandeur than the shock-and-awe we witnessed in the 2008 Beijing opening ceremonies." He expressed admiration for the Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir, which "clearly moved the crowd during the anthem. And Anna Netrebko solidified her standing as Russia's senior diva. It's frankly hard to top Firebird as a soundtrack to your torch lighting: Russia's fiery finale has been visually bested only by Barcelona '92."

The lighting of the Olympic Cauldron – by Russian figure-skater Irina Rodnina and hockey legend Vladislav Tretyak – was set to the final strains of Stravinsky’s Firebird, followed by a fireworks display that reportedly rattled windows and set off nearby car alarms.

Borodin's “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor established the evening's epic tone. Later, a glowing white troika, or three-horse sleigh, flew in to the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring followed by a roaming medieval village of onion-domed buildings. The stage was then transformed into a ballroom scene from Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, starring Bolshoi principal ballerina Svetlana Zakharova and a leaping Ivan Vasiliev of American Ballet Theater.

Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke's brooding Concerto Grosso No. 5 accompanied giant red tractors and equipment rushing in to symbolize revolution. There was also the expected Swan Lake of Tchaikovsky in a dreamy tableau; a snippet of Khachaturian’s Saber Dance as Soviet-era cars whizzed around; and, in a provocative gesture, the pseudo-lesbian pop duo Tatu.

Finane noted an irony in that "one could not have ordered a more gay-friendly soundtrack for the march of nations than that of Russia's house techno mix — to say nothing of the Russian interior ministry police force singing Daft Punk's retro-disco hit, "'Get Lucky.' The unintentionally hilarious Village People–style video is already viral and will surely eclipse hits on the opening ceremonies."

William Guegold, the author of 100 Years of Olympic Music, called the program "impressive," particularly in its uses of Stravinsky. "The pacing was about right and it served both the structural requirements of an opening ceremony and the cultural showcase of the host country," Guegold wrote in an e-mail. "When you consider the last 100 years of Russian history, this was no easy task."

The BBC reports that there were 500 singers on hand for the choruses. There was also a musician among the athletes: violinist Vanessa-Mae, who paraded in as part of the Thailand's downhill ski team. "I'm sure the insurance premiums on those fingers on her bowing arm must be astronomical,” said the BBC television announcer as the violinist waved to the crowd.

What did you think of the ceremony and its use of classical music? Tell us in the comments box below.

Some other views and reviews of Netrebko's performance:

Olympics scholar William Guegold: "I found the use of a male chorus with Netrebko gave the Olympic Hymn a distinctive Russian flavor. It's been rare to have a soloist featured during the hymn. And that was definitely a "Russian" tempo... very slow. Extremely difficult. She handled it superbly!"