Sunday, November 21, 2010
Anna Netrebko: Brilliance, Beauty, And Controversy.
I have been a long time coming around to a doing a piece on Anna Netrebko, for one very simple reason: I could not determine exactly what I felt about this very popular soprano. The pluses are obvious—a great voice and extraordinary physical beauty. The cons, if one is inclined to find them, are a carpet-chewing acting impulse and a sometimes woeful lack of discretion in how she permits herself to be presented, presumably by directors and management. What to do!
Anna Yuryevna Netrebko (Анна Юрьевна Нетребко) was born in Russia in 1971. She is a citizen of both Russia and Austria. She says her Austrian citizenship is to facilitate endless visa applications resulting from strictly Russian citizenship, but the move angered many Russians. However, that seems to be abating somewhat following Russia's prominent recognition of her made two years ago, when she was named People's Artist of Russia. No biography is really necessary for so prominent a figure still in her 30's, and everywhere recognized as a star. In addition to People's Artist, she was called "a genuine superstar for the 21st century" by Musical America, and additionally (and here comes part of the problem) she made Playboy's "sexiest babes of classical music" list.
It may seem strange that physical beauty can be a problem, but in the archetype-driven world of grand opera, it can. Hers is a visceral (read sexual) beauty that has an immediate appeal that is worlds apart from the kind of attraction often heaped on divas. There is what might be called a "statuesque regal" beauty, most often found in prima donnas of the past, who project a psychologically complex kind of attraction that really requires a foray into Freudian theory, something I personally am not inclined to do. Suffice it to say that "sexuality" in opera and ballet is not really real, it is usually symbolic and archetypal and has to do with the female in her eternal battle with the feminine—two entirely different things. The point is, it is not realistic sexuality—that is the kind taken over by the cinema, and presented very well there. When cinema invades opera and ballet, however, trouble usually follows in its wake. This is what Sir Kenneth MacMillan discovered when he tried introducing cinematic realism into ballet. He was nearly tarred and feathered and driven out of the ballet world altogether. In the case of opera, European stage directors (and, increasingly, American) are introducing cinematic elements into opera, in an attempt to make a largely 19th century art form "modern," offering new chances for discovery of new elements in old shows. Or so the rationalizing goes. I have some problems with that, but that's too long a story for here. I will only say that a few videos of Netrebko and Alagna, let us say, cavorting in their underwear and pawing each other, is not advised immediately after having eaten, as New York opera goers usually have. BUT—on to some videos, chosen to celebrate, not criticize:
Here is what may qualify as one of the ten most beautiful arias ever written, Dvorak's almost painfully lovely "Song to The Moon," one of Netrebko's signature pieces:
What can one say? An exceptionally beautiful aria, sung by an equally beautiful young woman. I do not think this can be faulted in any way. The richness of her voice can be almost mezzo-like in certain places, and it adds a thrilling depth to the sound which is most attractive. The vocal production is flawless; smooth and consistent all the way to the top. Not a bit of harshness or strain anywhere. It really seems to be beneficial for a singer to have been born in either an Italian or Russian speaking culture. Something about speaking either of those languages seems to predispose the musculature of the throat and larynx for classical singing.
Here is a traditional soprano showpiece aria that has for a very long time been a favorite with audiences and sopranos alike, the great "Casta Diva":
As in the case of the Dvorak, the singing is impeccable, and she demonstrates here that she can project a traditional elegance and near heroic sensibility, as well as visceral emotion. There is no question that she can communicate directly with an audience, in one way or another.
Now to the controversy. I have no wish to present the most problematical of her videos, which are only too easily found, (the discretion problem) but rather one that is entirely legitimate, in the eyes of most, and that is Netrebko in a modern setting of Traviata. I invite the reader to form his or her own opinion:
Here, the problem (if you consider it a problem) is, again, the superimposition of cinema on a 19th century work of art. Is it legitimate? Is it helpful to opera? Can it be aesthetically justified? I don't know. I notice certain things—one is that the video we have just seen has over half a million hits. Is this significant? You can see the problem...It is just damned hard to judge! My opinion, for what it is worth, is that there are serious problems here. Not with Netrebko—she's stunningly beautiful, she sings exceptionally well, and is passionate in a realistic, cinematic way....no, it isn't her, it's the stage director's concept. I find it flawed from an aesthetic point of view. La Traviata is most definitely not 20th century theater, let alone 21st century. I have the same problem here that I have with opera in translation. In the same way it is difficult to force the musical syntax of a Latin language to conform to the blocky syntax of English or German, it is hard to force cinematic conventions onto the lyric stage. It just doesn't work.
But that is not Netrebko's fault. So, where did I finally come down on the issue of Netrebko? She is a great soprano, with an exceptionally beautiful voice. She also has great beauty which she is, I believe, starting to project in more traditional ways as she grows older and more experienced.
at 10:03 AM