Anna Netrebko: Verismo, At What Price?

It's shocking to go from the sound of soprano Anna Netrebko's voice on her first DG recital of Opera Arias to that on her latest disc, Verismo. The earlier disc, recorded in March, 2003 when Netrebko was 32, showcases a true, shining lyric soprano whose vocal production is absolutely smooth. It also displays her ability to grow the voice substantially from a soft, focused thread to a larger sound of palpable intensity, and her impressive (albeit less than breathtaking) facility with coloratura. Over 12 years later, when Netrebko recorded Verismo between July 2015 and June 2016, her weightier low range lacks shine, and her stronger and sometimes wider vibrato occasionally shows signs of a beat. She also seems to have sacrificed tightly focused soft singing for maximum volume and dramatic impact.

Nor has this vocal change come suddenly. By the age of 38, when Netrebko recorded Donizetti's Norina in Don Pasquale at the Met for video, she already sounded too heavy for the role. Granted, she acted up a storm, looked fabulous, and was as enjoyable as all get out. But if you close your eyes, focus solely on the voice, and then check out her historic antecedents on disc, you discover a fineness of line and charming presence that are missing. As much fun as Netrebko appears to be having onstage—she was in superb company, and directed wonderfully -the voice itself conveys far less joy than do her body language and antics.

Which leads us to the state of her voice on Verismo. Beyond the issue of what constitutes verismo repertoire—if verismo is defined as a style of Italian opera that flourished at the end of the 19th century and, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, contains music that is "melodramatic," and whose "often violent plots [include] characters drawn from everyday life," I fail to see how Puccini's final opera, Turandot, which concerns a love affair between a prince and princess, with a blind king and his slave thrown into the mix, qualifies—the fact that Netrebko has gone from singing Musetta's lyric waltz from Puccini's La Bohème to the Princess's powerhouse riddle aria from Turandot raises as many red flags as it does eyebrows.

Which is not to say that there are not many fine things about her recording of Turandot's 6-minute dramatic soprano tour de force, "In questa reggia." Partnered by her excellent tenor husband, Yusif Eyvazov, whose even vocal production delivers ringing highs and tones of utmost sincerity, and superbly conducted/supported Antonio Pappano and the Chorus and Orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia, Netrebko certainly makes a big sound. Virtually all her highs on the recording are glorious, albeit less fresh than they were over a decade ago. But she seems to be giving at least 100% in order to convince us that she can play dramatic soprano à la Birgit Nilsson, Inga Borkh, Leonie Rysanek, Eva Marton, and, going way back, Eva Turner and the role's creator, Rosa Raisa (who never recorded the aria). It's hard not to wonder how long she can pull the stunt off before the voice begins to fall to pieces.

Stunt? In a sense, yes. While the great Montserrat Caballé, a lyric/lyrico spinto soprano of the previous generation who shared with Netrebko a flair for coloratura, graduated from the lighter role of the slave Liù to the far heavier role of Princess Turandot, I doubt she ever tried to sing Liù's lovely, floated "Signore, ascolta!" and Turandot's "In questa reggia" equally well at the same time. Netrebko attempts both on this disc, with the lighter aria sung without the freshness, innocence, and gloriously floated, sustained high ending that both Caballé and Price brought to it in their prime.

As gorgeous as Netrebko may sound on high in the great prima donna statement, "Io son l'umile ancella" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, she lacks the gravitas and dark chest-like tones at the bottom of her range that are the mark of a natural born verismo and lyrico-spinto soprano. She puts her all into "La mamma morta" (think the movie, Philadelphia) from Giordano's epic of the French revolution, Andrea Chenier, but set aside the performances by Maria Callas, Claudia Muzio ("La Divina"), and other greats, including the greatest verismo soprano of them all, Magda Olivero, she sounds too studied. Turn to her Butterfly, on the other hand, and you discover an "Un bel dì" sung with such unbridled desperation that it's hard to believe the character will make it through the night.

And so it goes. So much of her performance of "L'altra note in fondo al mare" from Boito's Mefistofele is right that it also most seems unfair to wish for more flexibility of tempo or, again, that essential weight and hollowness on bottom. It may also be unfair to continually compare her to Callas, who, at the same age Netrebko recorded this recital, threw in the towel due to vocal deterioration. But when, toward the end of "Vissi d'arte" from Puccini's Tosca, Netrebko copies Callas' technique of taking an extended, audible in-breath to heighten emotion, it's hard to do otherwise.

Pappano's conducting is faultless. Time and again, he brings out instrumental lines to heighten emotion. His opening to Netrebko and Eyvazov's moving performance of the complete final act of Puccini's Manon Lescaut is tremendous, and the dramatic percussion display at opera's end is something else. The orchestral contributions, in fact, are one of the best things on a disc where Netrebko's unceasingly revved up emotionally intensity eventually grows wearisome, and her inability to spin a phrase effortlessly is saddening. These problems are especially apparent in the air that precedes the scene, Manon's "In quelle trine morbide," where her lack of fresh tone is an especial disappointment.

As fine as the orchestra sounds, the vocal engineering is a major letdown. On the CD version, there's far too much reverb around Netrebko's voice, even when she sings quasi-softly, and a distinct lack of transparency and color. The hi-rez version (not auditioned at press time), which is available at HDTracks and ProStudioMasters, may well sound better. But nothing will change the fact that awards are not in store for Verismo.

tonykaz's picture

Never would've guessed.

My mother performed Opera ( back in the 1930s ).

I've felt Netrebko to be Heir following Sutherland's greatness. She seemed a bit strident 10 years ago. I'll bet these voices keep improving and working to improve. I hope someone records her latest performances. I'd like to own a some well recorded & fresh performances of Butterfly, Traviata and a few others.

Thanks for this story.

Operatic Voices have dynamic power that's hard to record, they sing without mic & amp yet easily reach the back rows ( I'm told they can hit 135db. levels, my mother certainly could reach incredible levels) Phew.

Back in the early 1980s, my mother (r.i.p.) and I heard Sutherland & Pavarotti perform La Traviata, for me it remains the finest musical performance I've experienced. I wonder what James Levine would say on this matter?

Once again, nice reading you,

Tony in Michigan

SFR Daniel's picture

I know it is difficult to record operatic voices, so perhaps there is some wobble in the technology. However -- I just got my copy of this CD. I was expecting to be swept away as I had been with her Verdi album, but found myself bored! The problem for me was the lack of articulation of the lyrics. That may have something to do with this discussion of her voice possibly picking up a strain, or something about the difference between Verdi and 'verismo composers', I'm not qualified to say. But I prefer to hear Italian sung in a way that puts the words into my mouth. I feel opera as drama, not as notes. To me this all sounded like "La-la-la-la". I would rather hear Maria Guleghina, whose voice is nowhere near the beauty of Netrebko's, because she has always articulated the words. Kiri Te Kanawa went to La-la-la for most of the second half of her career. Surely that's not inevitable.

eskisi's picture fat Netrebko got? She was the most elegant soprano, it was a pleasure to watch her. Not sure if the extra lard affects the voice also but how she gave up her main stock-in-trade is sad.