Jan/Feb 2004 music Reviews

Opera Arias

Anna Netrebko
Deutsche Grammophon (2003) 9 tracks

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

Editors Note: The reader will note that this is a music review, not a book review. The reader should give it a try, though, and not be constrained by such silly distinctions. —TD

Someone just now walked past my desk and remarked, "So you're writing opera reviews now?" Well, of course, and since when have I not? The reader can look me up in the archives of rec.music.opera and note that I had hundreds of things to say about the subject in the '90s, as well as a few CD reviews done later in a more structured mode, which I see are still out there on the Net being read somewhere. While by no means a singer myself, my background in classical music and also in theatre and theatre history combined somewhere in my early 20s to generate an interest that persists (though not as obsessively) to this day, especially in the colder months, for some reason.

And this winter we have the first solo release from the beautiful Anna Netrebko, the 37-something soprano, she of the cold Russian climes and noted interpreter of Prokofiev (though she's sung at most of the world's major opera houses by now, most notably for a lengthy stint in San Francisco). Opera critics are fond of comparisons, if for no other reason than to show off their historical knowledge, so let's begin by comparing Netrebko's carefully molded beauty to that of Anna Moffo, circa 1957, nodding at it, and further noting that while her label does a more tasteful job of presenting her than Sony did with cellist Ofra Harnoy, the photographs of her on and inside her CD case remind one of a Vanity Fair ad, her careful poses complimented by her seductive black dresses or white sweaters, the former counterpointed wonderfully by the pink rose in her raven hair. The CD is also pink. One is glad she doesn't also play at tennis.

Having said THAT, while stating publicly that I am available to write for your gay fashion magazine at a mere $100 per page of copy, let us now to the disc: nine arias (collected under a most uninspired title), well-chosen to show her lyric soprano range, from Mozart to French bel canto to more French showpieces (Gounod's "Jewel Song" to Musetta's Waltz from La Boheme to the work of the great Russian composers... oh, wait, there's just an aria here from Dvorak's Rusalka, and he wasn't Russian. She doesn't like Russian, she's quoted as saying in the Liner Notes, even though she made her MET debut and achieved international renown in that realm. So maybe the title is as apt as any—certainly better than Warhorses or Roasted Chestnuts or Nine Arias, which Lily Pons trilled on in the 20s.

Sorry, opera critics have to be quite discerning, these days perhaps more than ever.

But her execution, her readings of these pieces—well, I haven't even put the CD in yet. Hold on. Let's to music: my diatribes about artist depiction, music selection, and presentation are now over, and are nothing new in classical music circles, anyhow.


I gratefully haven't the time or the space to enter into a lengthy opera publication-esque concerning the Tradition from which Netrebko's vocal style may be said to be among the most contemporary examples. Such a writer would discuss Mozart, Mozart soubrette and coloratura roles, bel canto and its history from the compositions of the (quite different) Donizetti and Bellini to its interpretations by 19th-century sopranos to the ear-candy of Lily Pons and Amelita Galli-Curci in the 20s (he'd altogether forget Bidu Sayao's [the reader will forgive my not attempting the difficult diacritical marks in this piece] brilliant debut as Manon in Massanet's eponymous opera at the MET in 1937—they all do, but then again, she was a LYRIC soprano with a light, fringiline voice, not a "coloratura" with their vocal gymnastics which begin with say, Mozart's Die Zauberflaute "Queen of the Night" aria which everyone knows from that crappy movie Amadeus (I'll catch hell for saying this. I don't care).

—That writer would then elucidate the sea-change from what were popular gramophone arias (as on the present disc) to an emphasis on ACTING in CHARACTER as well, a phenomenon generally associated with the great Maria Callas in the 1950s and carried on by many others (but not Callas's arch-rival Renata Tebaldi, who had the better voice... "But who cares," Callas once said after hearing a Tebaldi record and acknowledging the beauty of the latter's instrument. He (it is almost ALWAYS a he, haven't you noticed?) would then trace the Callas "line" as if it were a family tree into the present, the condition of which he would inarticulately bemoan over crappy port, though he'd give Dame Joan Sutherland and Renata Scotto high marks until the 70s and hold that Jane Eaglen is the Great Big Hope for the Wagnerian soprano, but where are the Heldentenors!? (Actually, fifteen years ago, Domingo could do the lighter roles—like Windgassen. Ah, but I digress.)

Ok, got it? Haha, but opera is, even more than literature proper, an art that builds on the still echoing if faint or embellished voices of Opera Past. They sing much the same roles; we have a record of who sang these roles before and how they did it. Netrebko offers nothing new here, if anybody even could. She truly IS gifted—with a lower register rare for a soprano, especially a LYRIC soprano. It reminds one of Ponselle or even Leyla Gencer.

But Anna Netrebko is not a "true" coloratura—few are. If she wants to do the lyric role, she's a spinto, like Tebaldi. I of course base all this on a single disc, when Netrebko is reputed to have the "Whole Package"—meaning she can act, as well as sing. But I don't hear it. In Callas, it's EVERYTHING, even in compilations of arias from operas La Divina never sang on stage. The dark timbre and shadings of her chest voice are part gifts of nature and part technical knowledge—not acting. That's Callas as Lady Macbeth or Carmen.

Ok, the much-touted high notes. Netrebko can hit them—and clearly, like glass. It reminds one of a young Renata Scotto, I thought. Little wonder, as Scotto is her teacher. But Netrebko has a GAP between the middle and high registers she cannot smoothly cross—in fact, she doesn't even try. She just STOPS, and THEN goes into the "head voice." She occasionally scoops a bit, and her trill, so important to this repertoire, is a wobble. In short: I can hardly listen to her. Even the high coloratura notes are executed like ice, with no emotion, as if the singer is concentrating on the simple technical factors of not "cracking" on them.

And WHY? Hers is (or could be) a very beautiful instrument. As it is, this "complete package" is like those fruit and cheese baskets you get for Christmas—it's all there, but it's all mediocre. You'd trade the whole thing for a decent Brie.

Perhaps the reason is that with sales of CDs down in general, opera is down even further, and to make it, you've got to have crossover appeal. You've got to be an acrobat. It's sad. Know why?

Because if she keeps this up, Miss Netrebko is going to blow the top out of her voice within the decade and have no bottom left. Which is a shame, as there are MANY lyric soprano roles that beg for the unique color Netrebko's naturally dark mid-register timbre effects. Ponselle proved it. So did Verdi, if you want Italian like that La Boehme fellow. Or French... ah, the work of Cilea. Thais by Massenet... the list is as long as was Anna Moffo's descent into a laughingstock, God bless her.

But now Miss Netrebko is famous, after a fashion, with a multi-album contract with perhaps the most prestigious classical label in the world. If this CD is a trade-off, perhaps the next ones can save her voice... and repair her compromised artistry, which is reputed to be flawless.

Just not here. Oh, but I forgot—nice legs, though.


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