Since 2002, Anna Netrebko has sung many roles at the Metropolitan
Opera. An opera theatre of such rank can boast a constellation
of outstanding prima donnas. Still, it is Anna who was named
by Met’s general manager Peter Gelb “our reigning superstar
diva”. What is so special about her?
Personally for me – and kill me for blasphemy, if you want –
these are the same qualities that distinguished Maria Callas.
First, a beautiful voice, leaning towards the mezzo, with a
distinct and recognizable timbre. Rich and pliant, it has a
silky shine, yet is strong: a boxer’s fist in a velvet glove.
Second, it’s her ability to control this gift: the talent to
show a rainbow of emotions in a scope of a single note; to express
the feelings very naturally and credibly. Last but not least,
and especially not least for the theatre, it is her beauty and
Anna Netrebko already blessed Deutsche Grammophon with several
collections of opera arias. This album is different: Anna devised
it like a family photo album, where she is pictured surrounded
by her friends, in the most memorable scenes, where she may
even not be in the centre of the frame, where she is just one
of many. These scenes are dear to her and she would like to
preserve them and share them with us. The contents of the album
also differ from the typical “hooked on opera” compilations.
With the possible exception of O soave fanciulla, these
are not the standard pop-list arias. Instead, we hear entire
large-scale scenes from Lucia, Romeo et Juliette,
War and Peace, Rigoletto, all excellently recorded
and mixed by Jay David Saks.
The programme opens with the aria from I Puritani which
should serve to enroll anyone into the camp of Netrebko’s fans.
This performance is deeply emotional, yet restrained, its tragedy
is noble. She seems to be singing not the words, but pure feelings;
one does not need to know Italian, or the plot of the opera,
to be deeply moved by these divine long notes.
A good example of her gift of presenting a heroine’s character
is the portrayal of Natasha in the Window scene from War
and Peace. Together with Hvorostovsky and Semenchuk, Netrebko
weaves a shimmering, sensual tapestry. This is Prokofiev at
his best: modern yet profoundly lyrical. The opera may not be
easy to digest, but this scene is just beautiful. In the first
part of it, Netrebko pictures the adolescent girl, flooded with
delight, a bit childish, impetuous and spontaneous. The second
part is a romance that Natasha sings with her cousin Sonya,
a nod to Tchaikovsky’s soprano-alto duets from Onegin
and Pique Dame. It sways voluptuously.
Netrebko’s Vedrai, carino is unusual. The singer once
said that she does not feel affinity with the role, and one
can see why. Her Zerlina is very feminine, and sounds more like
the Countess from Figaro than a simple peasant girl.
Such a Zerlina would definitely change the balance of the female
roles in Don Giovanni. Each one of her Senti lo battere
is like an iridescent pearl.
The finale of Don Pasquale is layered, with tiers provided
by the three male voices, and Norina decorating the cake with
an exquisite, weightless, shiny topping. Netrebko here combines
real comic acting with beautiful bel canto technique.
In the joyous coda, she easily covers the entire orchestra and
chorus, which proves that she is not one of those studio-only
singers who may have a lovely voice but regrettably do not project
it well in the opera house.
I am very grateful to Netrebko for including Gilda’s self-sacrifice
scene from Rigoletto. Asher Fisch conducts a spellbinding
performance, gripping in its every measure, dramatic and spectacular.
Maddalena’s voice is earthy and a little unstable, but Eric
Halfvarson’s bass is dark and potent. Anyway, this is first
and foremost the conductor’s feast, and Fisch is terrific in
inflating this scary, searing storm.
This is followed by the grand ecstatic scene from Romeo and
Juliet, when the heroes say their morning good-byes – that
one with the Lark vs. Nightingale balloting. It is fascinating
how differently the two singers sing the same notes, same motifs:
Alagna’s Romeo is ardent and impatient, sometimes aggressive,
while Netrebko’s Juliet is feminine and insecure, her voice
perfectly round and pearly. In this music, it is easy to cross
the line between singing and shouting, but she shows admirable
control and is loud without strain in the voice; loud and tender,
loud and soft; another thing that brings Callas to mind.
But what she is doing in the solo scene - when Juliet drinks
the sleeping potion - is even better. This heroic aria is definitely
inspired but has a lot of square moments. She transcends this
“Grand Opéra” style and presents us the fireworks of the human
voice, the emotional explosion, the truly Shakespearean grandeur.
Her top notes are powerful; they are not detached and blend
organically with the rest. Such control at the end of a long
and tiring opera is admirable, and I join the applause at the
An important quality of an opera singer is the ability to transform,
and the contrast between Gounod’s Juliette and Donizetti’s Lucia
is striking. In this performance Netrebko pictures the most
fragile soul. This fragility is reflected in the accompaniment
by a glass harmonica, which is done very expressively and sensitively
by Cecilia Brauer. This scene was already included in the “Sempre
libera” album, and was sung beautifully there. However, I much
prefer the new performance – for this palpable fragility that
Netrebko projects, and for the celestial performance on the
glass harmonica. Also, I like it that the life performance has
more discomforting “weirdness” in the voice; it is more nervous,
more unbalanced, and sounds less like a standard aria. You’ll
feel the scary aura of madness. Also, the noises of the scene,
the rustle of the dress, the sound of steps – all this does
not detract, but adds credibility. If there are minor imperfections,
they are like the imperfections of a natural gem: they only
make it more precious.
Netrebko is probably too full-blooded for the roles of Antonia
and Mimi. But her shy and somewhat girlish Antonia is a good
pair to the honey-voiced Hoffmann of Joseph Calleja. The four
heroines of Les Contes d’Hoffmann can so easily become
schematic and lifeless. Netrebko’s Antonia is alive and vulnerable.
Mimi’s farewell monologue from Act III also seems to me very
“healthy”. There is no customary sense of “fading away”; I feel
that Mimi’s spirit is really strong, and her love is still all
there, such is the warmth of her words to Rodolfo. Apparently,
Anna is more of a Musetta type. In O soave fanciulla
she is good, but the best thing is the tenor of Piotr Beczala,
so young and firm, so effortless, with a touch of Pavarotti’s
golden shining. Without strain, without edge, he radiates passion.
We hear an excellent partnership here. Marco Armiliato conducts
without hurry, steadily coaxing the slow fires of Puccini, gathering
steam. This makes a great close.
Anna Netrebko has already issued some very special recordings;
I am particularly fond of her “Russian Album”: this repertoire
had rarely been presented with such brilliance. Not all her
records are at the same level – for example, her recital with
Barenboim was not a success, her voice there is strained and
dry. But on this live opera disc everything is perfect, and
her creamy, opulent voice glows and shimmers. The booklet has
more pictures than words, but it has the texts of all the numbers,
with English translations, and tells how one can download the
French and German translations. It has photographs from the
productions and excerpts from newspaper reviews in different
languages. I praise the excellent recording quality. The sound
is very clean, deep, and with the full feeling of presence.
Audience participation is minimal. This disc is a great souvenir
of a most wonderful voice – and I am sure it is only the beginning.
Full Track List
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Qui la voce sua soave from I Puritani (1835)
Patrick Summers (conductor)
rec. January 6, 2007
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Ya ne budu – Kak solnce za goroj from War and Peace
with Dmitry Hvorostovsky, Ekaterina Semenchuk
Valery Gergiev (conductor)
rec. March 2, 2002
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Vedrai, carino from Don Giovanni (1787) [3:57]
Sylvain Cambreling (conductor)
rec. February 15, 2003
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Senz’andar lunghi – La moral di tutto questo from Don
Pasquale (1843) [4:04]
With Mariusz Kwiecien, Simone Alaimo, Juan Diego Flórez
Maurizio Benini (conductor)
rec. April 15, 2006
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Ah, più non ragiono! from Rigoletto (1851) [6:17]
with Nancy Fabiola Herrera, Eric Halfvarson
Asher Fisch (conductor)
rec. December 17, 2005
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Va! je t’ai pardonné – Nuit d’hyménée! from Roméo
et Juliette (1867) [11:04]
Dieu! quel frisson – Amour, ranime mon courage from Roméo
et Juliette [6:00]
with Roberto Alagna
Plácido Domingo (conductor)
rec. December 15, 2007
Eccola! – Il dolce suono – Ardon gl’incensi from Lucia
di Lammermoor (1835) [12:59]
Marco Armiliato (conductor)
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Pourtant, ô ma fiancée – C’est une chanson d’amour
from Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1879) [3:59]
with Joseph Calleja
James Levine (conductor)
rec. December 19. 2009
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
D’onde lieta usci from La Bohème (1895) [3:29]
O soave fanciulla from La Bohème [4:32]
with Piotr Beczala
Marco Armiliato (conductor)
rec. February 27, 2010