At the 2008 Salzburg Festival, a new opera star was born in true Hollywood style. Nino Machaidze, a late replacement for Anna Netrebko, sang Gounod’s Juliette in a new production the festival had planned for Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. The little-known soprano’s conquest of the hard-to-please Salzburg audience gave birth to a sensational career for a singer then only 25 years old.
Machaidze hails from the republic of Georgia. As a small child growing up in Tbilisi, she already longed to sing. At seven she was fortunate to begin piano and vocal lessons at a school affiliated with her hometown’s State Conservatory. Once she “graduated” to the Conservatory itself, her talent developed so significantly that, at just 17, she was assigned Norina in Don Pasquale at Tbilisi’s Paliashvili Theatre. Two other important roles followed, Zerlina and Rosina.
Her successes in those three roles led to a crucial audition – for the world-renowned academy for young artists at La Scala. Chosen from among hundreds of competitors, Machaidze gratefully took every advantage of this extraordinary opportunity to refine her artistry. Living in Milan gave her complete ease in the Italian language, and her studies honed the bel canto style that is second-nature in her performances today. After winning the 2006 Leyla Gencer Vocal Competition, she received an enormous challenge from La Scala – the title role of La fille du régiment. Her reprise of that portrayal at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma led to much “buzz” about a marvelous new soprano. Salzburg was then urgently needing to replace the pregnant Netrebko. A festival official was impressed by Machaidze’s Lauretta inGianni Schicchi at La Scala under Riccardo Chailly, she was engaged as Juliette, and suddenly the pressure of a huge, potentially life-changing debut loomed large.
The Gounod role was entirely new to Machaidze, and at that time she had only minimal command of French. She was given just a month to prepare, but her hard work paid off the moment she stepped onstage at Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule. Petite, dark-haired, with enormously expressive eyes and a megawatt smile, she exuded a teenager’s vitality and truly lived every moment of her characterization. Most important, her fascinatingly dark-timbred yet youthful voice sailed through Gounod’s demanding music with astonishing grace and confidence. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported that her singing won the public from the start “with pearly lustre and a natural, spontaneous musicality.” The production’s eventual release on DVD would prompt Opera News to proclaim Machaidze “a Juliette to cherish.” The role has also introduced Machaidze to audiences at the Teatro La Fenice and Covent Garden.
The soprano is currently concentrating on both lyric-coloratura heroines of bel cantorepertoire, both comic and tragic. These operas have brought her house debuts in Bologna (in I puritani with Juan Diego Flórez), Berlin (L’elisir d’amore), Brussels (Lucia di Lammermoor), Munich (L’elisir d’amore), Valencia (Lucia di Lammermoor under Daniel Oren), Vienna (in Il turco in Italia), Barcelona (La fille du régiment) and her North American debut in L’elisir d’amore at Los Angeles Opera, among many other theatres. Machaidze also revisited one of her first major roles, Verdi’s Gilda, for her eagerly awaited Metropolitan Opera debut in January 2011. The rest of the year would hold return engagements at Los Angeles Opera, La Scala, and Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper, plus debuts at Verona’s Teatro Filarmonico (Les pêcheurs de perles) and world-famous open-air Arena with Roméo et Juliette.
Roger Pines, dramaturg and broadcast commentator at Lyric Opera of Chicago