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Anna Netrebko, Sempre Libera

Reviews of Don Pasquale:

Anthony Tommasini, 'Don Pasquale' in a New Production at the Met by Otto Schenk (New York Times, April 3)

Martin Bernheimer, Don Pasquale, Metropolitan Opera, New York (Financial Times, April 3)

Robert Hofler, Don Pasquale (Variety, April 4)

Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Vamping taints an all-too-merry widow (Newsday, April 4)

Ben Mattison, Photo Journal: Netrebko in the Met's New Don Pasquale (PlaybillArts, April 1)
Russian soprano Anna Netrebko came out of the rigorous young singers program at the Kirov Opera. We haven't had the chance to hear her yet this season in Washington, but I will be listening to her tomorrow in the Met Opera broadcast of Don Pasquale (Saturday, April 15, 1:30 pm), with tenor Juan Diego Flórez, whom we will get to hear at Washington National Opera next month in L'Italiana in Algeri. Martin Bernheimer's review of Don Pasquale was quite negative:
[Director Otto Schenk] also allowed – encouraged? – Anna Netrebko, the glamour-diva-du-jour cast as Norina, to treat the scene as her personal camping ground. She preened, purred, twitched, gesticulated, cackled, grimaced, beamed, waved to the crowd, wiggled her toes, danced, pranced, twirled, somersaulted (yes, somersaulted), modelled a mock-Tosca costume for comic effect, flashed a lot of bare leg, sang brightly and loudly, forgot to trill, and mushed the Italian text. The fans adored her.
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Violetta: Arias and Duets from Verdi's La Traviata, Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, Thomas Hampson, Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Rizzi (released February 14, 2006)
In the fall of 2004, I read a lot of reviews of Netrebko's second recital CD (Sempre Libera, more on that below), named for a line in Violetta's famous opening scena from La Traviata ("È strano! è strano!" and so on). Alex Ross, as usual, had reasoned words to say in The New Yorker about the allergic reaction of many critics to Deutsche Grammophon's marketing strategy for this beautiful singer. She is often paired with Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón, a type of matchup that worked for Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, up to the point where the former's career kept rising while the latter's stagnated a bit.

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Verdi, La Traviata, Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera Chorus, Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, Thomas Hampson, Carlo Rizzi (released November 8, 2005)
The focus on La Traviata is due to the raving critical acclaim accorded to the production of that opera at the Salzburg Festival in 2003. (Surely, I will be cast into hell for publishing this on Good Friday, when the scandalous reference the lovers make to their passion -- "croce e delizia al cor," or cross and delight to the heart -- is doubly blasphemous.) Deutsche Grammophon has spliced together a complete version of the opera, recorded over seven different live performances of the production, which was reprised at Salzburg in 2005, for a new Traviata release, with Netrebko, Villazón, and the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera chorus under Carlo Rizzi. In February, they also released a selection of arias and duets from that recording (Violetta), as a single disc featuring the soprano and tenor (along with Thomas Hampson's turn as Germont for good measure). One could argue that we have heard enough already.

The marketing nexus between opera and sex is as old as the hills, so I do not understand why anyone would object to having images of a woman as beautiful as Anna Netrebko thrust in one's face all the time. She is lovely to look at, which is a dramatic strength for a role like Violetta -- the thought of Netrebko as a temptress driving men wild is believable. She also sings very well: her voice is strong, dark, if perhaps not as accurate in turns and runs or as dazzling in the very high range as one could wish. Still, I can understand why people experiencing her live in an opera house would go crazy. (Vilaine Fille called Netrebko's Norina "repellent," but I think the criticism was more on dramatic grounds than vocal ones.) We will be able to hear the audience's reaction this Saturday during the broadcast of Don Pasquale.

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Anna Netrebko - The Woman, The Voice, Anna Netrebko, directed by Vincent Paterson (released November 23, 2004)
You get a little taste of this with the bonus DVD that comes along with the Violetta CD, which has two scenes from the 2005 staging in Salzburg. It was a gorgeous production, with Netrebko in a red dress ("opera hot," as Wellsung puts it), reclining on a bright red couch and surrounded by the chorus of panting men in a surging crowd apparently ready to gang-rape her (during the brindisi). Her voice has a puissant ring to it, although the bottom range gets lost slightly in these scenes in Act I and she takes a lot of breaths that others do not require. I for one miss that high E-flat that most sopranos add to the end of "Sempre libera." The other track on the bonus DVD is a music video originally released on a DVD, Anna Netrebko - The Woman, The Voice, with Netrebko badly lip-synching to her own recording of "Non mi dir, bell'idol mio" from Don Giovanni. For some reason, her gown alternates back and forth between different colors with each musical phrase, and Netrebko does some Madonnaesque dance moves in the center of a group of dancers costumed as trees. The less said about that, the better. My advice is not to buy that DVD (apparently made for people whose concentration span has been destroyed by MTV), and don't buy this selection of excerpts from La Traviata for the bonus DVD. Almost anyone would be better off buying the full opera on CD and waiting for the Salzburg production to be released complete on DVD.

There are other singers on the Violetta CD (and in the complete version). Rolando Villazón is an excellent tenor, well suited for singing with Netrebko. His voice also has a dark quality, with a big, throaty high C added at the end of "De' miei bollenti spiriti." Without a doubt, the most beautiful duet moments in this opera are not between Violetta and Alfredo, but between Violetta and Alfredo's father, Germont. As sung here by the exquisite voice of Thomas Hampson, these are well-realized ensemble moments, as is the finale of Act III. Hampson's voice is the incarnation of polish and refinement, in contrast with the younger soprano and tenor.

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Anna Netrebko, Sempre Libera, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado (released August 10, 2004)
It is interesting to note that Netrebko also recorded "Sempre libera" (with the whole scena on the first two tracks) on the 2004 CD, which took its title from this cabaletta. Claudio Abbado, at the head of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, pushes the tempo ahead, in a definitely good way. Only a year earlier than the 2005 Traviata, Netrebko's voice seems like a more precise -- if less full-bodied -- instrument here. (In general, Carlo Rizzi and the Vienna Philharmonic are more deferential to Netrebko on the later recording.) Interestingly, she takes the high note at the end of the cabaletta on the 2004 CD, and it sounds good, maybe a little fragile, which may be why she opted against it in Salzburg.

The beautiful Anna NetrebkoAll this fuss about La Traviata is fine, but the other tracks on the 2004 CD, now probably mostly forgotten, are worth comment. Bellini's "Ah! Non credea mirarti" is one of the prettiest things he wrote in La sonnambula, an opera that I reviewed in its Baltimore Opera production last fall. Some people have compared Netrebko's voice, with its sometimes dark tone, to that of Callas. That similarity is perhaps most pronounced here, as Netrebko's voice matches elegantly with the solo cello. In the cabaletta that follows ("Ah! Non giunge uman pensiero"), Netrebko sings high E's but does not linger on them. (Valeria Esposito's live performance in Baltimore was more exciting, but that is probably more due to the energy boost of live performance than to the two voices under comparison.)

La Traviata seems to be within Netrebko's reach, and she has had some success with Puccini. However, in the middle part of this CD, Netrebko loses a wrestling match with most of the Bellini excerpts. She has a good sound, nothing phenomenal, on the long lines of the slower pieces, like "O giusto cielo!" from Lucia di Lammermoor. The fast runs in "Vien, diletto, è in ciel la luna!" from I Puritani are laughably bad; those in "Spargi d'amaro pianto" (Lucia) are better, up to a point. There is hope for the flexibility of her passage singing, to be sure, with some good singing in the cadenza section of "Ardon gli incensi" (Lucia), although the final high note is strained, especially at the release. The final three tracks are all good, although I hope Netrebko eschews Desdemona for the time being, if the two excerpts from the final act of Otello are an indication. She throws in the encore piece of "O mio babbino caro" (Gianni Schicchi) and benefits, as all sopranos do, from the melodic genious of Puccini.

One thing is for sure: whether for her looks or her voice, I can't tell, but Anna Netrebko has one new four-year-old fan. Mini-Critic spent part of the morning yesterday listening to these recordings with me while he played with his toys. He even watched the bonus DVD with me (he liked the big clock in the Salzburg Traviata but insisted that I turn off the "scary opera with the tree people"). Mrs. Ionarts then told me that Mini-Critic had asked to "listen to the opera" yesterday afternoon while I was up at the National Shrine singing for Holy Thursday. She put the "Sempre Libera" CD on the player, and he listened for about 20 minutes with his blanket. High praise, indeed.


Anonymous said...

Alagna is now with DG - not a bad move for either... especially as he is probably a better singer than his 'wife'.

jfl said...


"Almost anyone would be better off buying the full opera on CD and waiting for the Salzburg production to be released complete on DVD."

absolutely concur. It's a good recording (the complete set, that is), but the DVD (to be released a little later this year, after max. profit has been milked from excerpts recording and complete opera) is stunning, indeed: An audio-visual spectacle.

Mark Barry said...

I think it's interesting that most all your and jfl's reviews are of hotties. I'm not complaining, but it dose (bust) alter the stereotype of concert singers.

jfl said...

We humbly try our best, Mark. :)

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, this, but...have we not had a chance to hear Netrebko in DC? Since '99 she's done Rigoletto, Idomeneo, and Nozze di Figaro with WNO to good notices. She also sang recently in the WNO's 50th anniversary gala, covered by one of the local cultural blogs...I forget which.


Charles T. Downey said...

Jens, thanks for the comment about Alagna's fortunes. Someone HAS to be able to make money off that voice.

Eggpoe, thanks, too. My comment was only about the rest of this season and next, which I should have made clearer. I overlooked the Golden Gala, which I did not myself attend. With all respect, that event (while nice, I'm sure) is not really what I had in mind, anyway.

Mark, any attention we seem to be giving to beautiful female singers at Ionarts is pure coincidence...

Mark Barry said...


jfl said...

Mark: For years and years... nay: Decades!, poor sopranos - and sometimes even contraltos and mezzos - have been demeaned, categorized, stigmatized, etc.etc. as "the fat lady" that sings. We, at ionarts are shocked - SHOCKED! - at such stereotyping. However, no effort is too strenuous for us to help sopranos overcome this weight/height-ration stigmatization. We know we have much work left, hard work of posting ravishing looking singing women on the internet... but someone's got to do it. We won't stop until we have reached a satisfactory level amid the public perception of how sopranos can (but mustn't necessarily) look.


p.s. we deserve a price... or somethin'.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Anna Netrebko's making the most of her assets, and why not? She'll turn 35 in September. That's a real turning point, age wise, for a professional female opera singer.

Her technique, though, unfortunately does not protect her VOICE, nor does it support roles with lots of runs. She's really hurtin' in that department.

The recent Met simulcast of her Norina does not show evidence that she's headed in a good direction vocally and does not bode well for a long, healthy singing career.

That's just my opinion, of course.