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Three Singers

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Anna Netrebko, Russian Album, Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev (released on January 9, 2007)
Anna Netrebko's assets on the stage in her recent appearances, in bel canto operas, have been her beauty and dramatic intensity. When Netrebko sang Elettra's mad aria from Idomeneo at the Salzburg Festival anniversary concert last summer (you can watch it at YouTube, of course -- embedded below, Japanese subtitles and all), there was this intense, almost scary moment at the opening of the aria. Netrebko walks on stage, ravishingly beautiful, smiles and nods at the conductor and orchestra and -- in a flash (at about 00:19 of the YouTube video) -- switches into character and sings the hell out of the aria. Naturally, a video of the recording session of one of the tracks from this CD is embedded at the Amazon page (click on the album image to get there). Although not announced, perhaps a DVD version of the Russian Album is waiting in the wings.

What Netrebko lacks in real ultra-high power singing and agile fioriture makes roles like her Violetta and Elvira less satisfying musically. However, the repertoire she sings on her new album of Russian songs and arias is much better suited to her strengths, dramatic and slow lines, hushed singing, and swells on held notes. That she is singing in her native language only makes things better for her, and in the liner notes Netrebko makes a lot out of coming home to St. Petersburg to make this recording in the Mariinsky Theater with Valery Gergiev. (It has not gone unnoticed, however, that in the middle of the recording sessions for the Russian Album, in March 2006, Netrebko applied for and received Austrian citizenship.) Particularly beautiful tracks include the arioso from Tchaikovsky's Iolanta (an opera I had the pleasure of hearing live last summer), the Rachmaninov songs, especially the Pushkin poem Ne poy, krasavica ("Oh, do not sing to me, fair maiden, / those songs from sorrowful Georgia"), and a thrilling Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin.

The stated aim of this album is to bring some lesser-known Russian operas to the world's attention, and that goal is met. Of course, the occasional staging of Eugene Onegin (last at Washington National Opera in 1985; the Met's latest production, with Gergiev conducting Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, was a joy via Sirius last night -- just in time for Valentine's Day, hah!) or The Queen of Spades (WNO, 2002) is nice enough. However, serious listeners would certainly welcome the chance to see Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tale of Tsar Saltan or The Snow Maiden (WNO did have The Tsar's Bride in 1992), Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, or Rachmaninov's Francesca da Rimini. It brings a smile to my face that the buyers who have driven this album's sales through the roof, mostly not opera nuts, are getting a taste of this repertory.

Deutsche Grammophon B0008153-02

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Renée Fleming, Homage: The Age of the Diva, Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev (released on October 17, 2006)
Speaking of La Fleming, it is the accepted Ionarts wisdom that she is better on stage, in character (as in the marvelous Capriccio I saw her in in Paris), than in her persona of "America's favorite soprano." In her latest CD, Homage, she pays tribute to divas past with selections from repertory they sang notably, mostly drawn from the years 1870 to 1920, not coincidentally the type of music for which Fleming's voice is best suited. Her selection of pieces, guided by the best possible sources, is outstanding, and yet on a number of tracks, her idiosyncrasies are intolerable, at least for this listener. Vissi d'arte and Poveri fiori, the latter from Adriana Lecouvreur, are the worst -- the sharp inhalations, the notes held (to the last bit of breath, with a little crescendo at the end) long beyond the orchestra has stopped playing, the sobbed diction. Most of the performances are technically fine, to be sure, with the exception of the track from Gounod's Mireille where some of the staccato high singing borders on painful to hear. Fleming's thick, broad voice is best up against a full Straussian orchestral sound: it is not a laser like Dessay's that can just shimmer against a light accompaniment.

Still, the tracks I will keep on my MP3 player are the obscurities, mostly in the style that Fleming sings so well: Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, Smetana's Dalibor, Tchaikovsky's Oprichnik, Korngold's Die Kathrin and especially his Das Wunder der Heliane. (Can a U.S. company please mount that opera soon? Santa Fe Opera, you have done only one Korngold opera, back in 1984: give this one some thought.) Who knows why Gergiev elected to have a track from Rimsky-Korsakov's Servilia, a score only recently unearthed in the Mariinsky Theater's library, on Fleming's recital CD instead of Netrebko's. Whatever faults Fleming may have, she loves to discover little-known operas, and she has enough clout to get companies to stage them. God bless her for that.

Decca 475 8068

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Edvard Grieg, Songs, Anne Sofie von Otter, Bengt Forsberg (1993, re-released in 2007)
While we are discussing the recovery of obscure national repertory, it is a good time to mention that Deutsche Grammophon will re-release (on March 13) the marvelous Grieg recital disc made by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter in 1993 ("a must for any collector," according to Gramophone). Recorded with her frequent collaborator Bengt Forsberg, who like von Otter is Swedish, this CD is a superb survey of the Norwegian master's songs. Grieg lived in a time shortly after Norway had finally gained independence from Denmark, and academics were arguing about how to achieve linguistic independence by rescuing what they could of the mostly vanished Norwegian language, which had been officially replaced by Danish. As a result of the linguistic flux of that life, Grieg set poetry in Danish (by Hans Christian Andersen), in Dano-Norwegian (by Henrik Ibsen), New Norwegian (by A. O. Vinje and Arne Garborg), and even German (by Heine, Goethe, and others).

These songs could not be more different from the repertory on the preceding two CDs. Grieg wrote his songs almost exclusively for the less than virtuosic voice of his beloved wife, Nina (née Hagerup). Von Otter's mellifluous, golden-toned voice is never pushed to its limits, but what she and Forsberg do so well is exactly what Grieg said he intended: "not to compose music but to do justice to the poet's most intimate intentions. My task is to allow the poetry to speak -- indeed, to allow it to speak in a heightened manner" (from the biography by Henry T. Finck, quoted in this CD's liner notes). Excellent discoveries are the eight songs of Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid, poetry in Norwegian by Arne Garborg, composed in 1895), which as a song cycle in a female voice is rare enough, but it also happens to be gorgeous and fascinating. Only a Scandinavian singer could make a line like Grieg's melody on "i Blåhaugen skal du din Sylvrokk snu" (on the Blue Mountain you will turn your silver spinning-wheel) sound so beautiful.

Forsberg's piano adds the right colors -- yes, colors in Norway beyond the white and gray of ice and eternal night -- and supports von Otter's voice with consummate grace. It is likely that two souls resting together on the mountain near Troldhaugen, overlooking the fjord, are happy whenever someone listens to this recording. If it is not already in your collection, this is a good time to add it, especially at the reduced price (Amazon's pre-order list price, $11.98).

Deutsche Grammophon 437 521-2

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