INKPOT — Anna Netrebko — Sempre Libera — Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado
|by Steven Ang
“Anna Netrebko will be making her feature film dbut in Garry Marshall’s Princess Diaries II with Julie Andrews, reads her official website. And so I found myself jostling with a horde of school kids on holiday, including a bunch of sweaty junior college kids, in a suburban cinema one weekday afternoon (I didnt mind them at all), to catch a tween movie of yet another corporate manufactured princess fairytale.
And there she was, about an hour into the movie, singing the last few runs of Sempre Libera accompanied by an electric keyboard, before being presented with a Golden Pear Award and her only line. Its almost good enough to eat! she chuckles in a thick accent. Methinks DG must have paid a small fortune for that short product placement, but even the tub of Hagen Diaz had more screen time than her! But at least the featured song is included in the movie soundtrack.
And so, onto this CD. Following her hugely successful debut CD, this sophomore effort, released about a year from the last one, aims to place her in the group of traditional lyric soprano roles that the greatest divas of the past have succeeded in (In the album notes, Netrebko mentions her predecessors in these roles; Callas, Mirella Freni, and Renata Scotto, who is also her singing coach). The music is conveniently grouped into 5 complete scenes (plus one encore aria), showing off the sopranos acting prowess in roles that she had already performed onstage, save for the Otello scene. The accompanying glamour shots in the album notes completes the message, carefully crafted by her managers and publicists, that this lady is ready to join the league of the Great Divas.
But does that mean that fans around the world are ready to accept her in such a role? Granted that Scotto, Freni, Sutherland and Callas are not able to sing live anymore (this is especially true for the latter), and live opera requires new leading ladies who can ascend to these difficult parts (like how Sutherland, Caballe, Scotto etc have waited in line to ascend to these parts from the previous generations). But in the field of recorded music, the competition is tougher as new singers who take on these warhorses often find themselves in competition with other great artistes who have already written their legacy, while they are still starting to write theirs! What they need to establish is a unique way of delivery that will set them apart, though not necessarily an improvement, from their predeccessors work. Artistes like Fleming and Callas, singers as different as night and day and of different generations, have inspired equally fanatical and unfavorable reactions from the public. And they have both made a place in the history of opera.
What is unique about Anna Netrebko her voice: a dark husky tone that is very unusual for a lyric soprano, especially in the stratospheric heights of the bel canto parts. Imagine a cup of dark coffee with extra sugar, stretched from end to end by the teh-tarik man. It can go through all sorts of tests and still retain its flavour.
First the bad stuff: namely the cuts made to Ah! Forse Lui (one of four tracks starting with Ah!) where the second verse is removed as it is traditionally done. And more bizarrely, the ending to La Sonnambulas Ah! Non giunge had the last verse of the chorus removed, going straight to the final high note that mixes awkwardly with the orchestra banging away. Very anticlimactic in my opinion.
But most of the music recorded is quite enjoyable. Anna Netrebko injects her music with a playful sense of exuberance that is such an attractive part of her personality. Imagine one of those extroverted types who do not necessarily fit a particular role, but performs with so much zest that everyone enjoys her performance. This is coupled with technical know-how that is as secure as the next leading lady, which enables her to tackle those difficult coloratura runs and high notes with apparent ease. Add to the fact that she can manage all this and shes not even thirty!
Her Sempre Libera is well thought out; pensive in the slow passage, and full of spirit the fast one. The bel canto scenes from La Sonnambula, I Puritani and Lucia di Lammermoor further enhance Netrebkos status as a leading coloratura songbird. In Ah! Non Credea Mirarti, she softens her voice to portray the sleepwalking Amina, and her runs, with ornamentation, are pitch perfect and bright. Her dark tone may seem a little harsh for some people, but I believe it gives her voice personality. Saimir Pirgu is an enjoyable addition as Alfredo.
My personal highlight is the mad scene from Lucia, complete with the cabaletta Spargi darmore pianto at the end. Having played the part for the first time only a few days before this recording, Netrebkos performance is superbly in tune to the drama. She is haunting one moment, pathetic the next. The glass harmonica played by Sascha Reckert, written in the score but usually substituted with a flute, lent a disturbingly eerie atmosphere to the proceedings, dramatizing in music where words cannot do, to describe Lucias gradual descent into madness.
However, I felt that her scene from Otello is a little cold. The music is beautiful of course, and she sings it well. Sara Minguardo, a mezzo and long-time colleaque of John Elliot Gardiner, cameos as her maid Emilia and she is a supportive partner for Netrebko, pulling off the recitative parts with good rapport. But I thought that the Willow Song could use a little more feeling, and the Ave Maria was a little rushed. Surely more sentimentality could be milked out of the music. But it is an okay performance, and Desdemona is a role that she could fit quite comfortably in.
In the last number, O Mio Babbino Caro, Anna Netrebko as Lauretta laments her supposedly bitter fate, but knowing the Russian lass cheeky personality, you can almost see her chuckling in the background.
All in all, this well-timed release is quite enjoyable. While better performances of these excerpts can surely be found elsewhere, the musical quality is of a high standard, and recorded sound is much clearer than the mono sounds of yore, and the static of cheap pirates. The future looks promising for Anna Netrebko, and I hope that her star will continue to shine. 4 out of 5 stars.