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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, 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.


corax said...

as usual, sir edmund -- you have hit the nail on the head. and handled a controversial issue with tact and fairness [and your infallible courtesy].

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend. I think the infallible courtesy is yours!

J.D. Hobbes said...

You are honest in your appraisal and feelings about the modern setting of "Traviata." You are correct that it is a tough call. But at the very beginning the opera was not well received. There was controversy back then in the middle of the 19th century as to what time period was best for the piece. Some wanted it in the 18th century.

It is not easy, because the subject matter helps to date the opera. TB is not a typical illness of 2010. It has always been hard to imagine a fat singer dying of TB (when the soprano was overweight). It is not easy to look at Netrebko in a beautiful gown in a modernistic setting and imagine her as a poor dying woman. Perhaps it if were set in a poor area of a modern city like Paris or Rome? I can see why Shakespeare may have wanted minimalist settings in some plays. One has to suspend one's disbeliefs and use the imagination. But as you point out, this setting is hard to put aside, considering the subject matter. I suppose each person has to decide for himself. Ultimately the box office prevails.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes. I appreciate your comments, as always. My apologies for inadvertently deleting your comment above. I'm bad about hitting the wrong buttons, sometimes! Fortunately, I had saved it. And I think you are right about the box office. The Spanish have a saying, "Poderoso caballero es Don Dinero." Lord Money is a very powerful knight. Truer words were never spoken. We'll all have to wait and see how it works out. As I mentioned in the piece, that last video has over half a million hits. Somebody likes it!

Anonymous said...

In the version above, I suppose one could argue that the minimal setting shows how irrelevant the actual physical location is and that the important feature is the large clock indicating that time is running out on life's brief moments of love and happiness.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Very well said, my friend. Yes, I am quite aware that that is a prefectly reasonable interpretation of the setting. I suppose it could be argued that Violetta heaving a glass at the wall, while swinging a bottle of wine in one hand was a bit over the top, as far as characterization is concerned, but then I have personally witnessed such scenes, as we probably all have, at one time or antother, and so the question really becomes one of how far we want cinematic "reality" to enter our opera.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article; your opinion on Netrebko is very interesting for me, because she is criticized a lot in Russia. (Luckily, I managed to fix my computer right in time to comment on this article). I always suspected that our critics and opera fans were too strict to her.

The voice is really pleasant and smooth. The only shortcoming of her singing is diction. Her pronunciation seems ‘muffled’, though her consonants sound clear. I don’t know why it is so, maybe because almost all her vowels sound like ‘o’. It’s almost annoying in Russian operas, though perhaps, in Italian it’s not so evident.
Netrebko said that she had studied in a ballet school when she was a teenager, and what I especially like in her acting is her ‘body control’, her movements are very precise, which is rare on opera stage. Of course, directors want to use her beauty , physical abilities and grace as often as they can. She looked very natural as Manon in those stupid scenes with Alagna (this doesn’t justify the director though). It seems to me that she never refuses to take part in scandalous productions because she is from the former USSR. Many Russians/ Ukrainians feel that they must ‘grab’ their chance to earn money, and she probably decided not to refuse from anything and to become a star, no matter what critics would say. By the way, Anna Moffo, another beautiful soprano and a great Violetta, dared to do scandalous things, she posed nude for photographers. But somehow she is considered more ‘classic’, than Netrebko.

I saw that production of la Traviata with Netrebko and Villason on TV. It was expressive and even moving, though I agree that the opera doesn’t need ‘modernization’. The story with the engagement of Alfredo’s sister and George Germont’s demands are almost impossible in modern society. No one understands how Alfredo’s relationship with Violetta would threaten his sister’s engagement, if the story happens now . That problem was typical for the 19th century or earlier periods. So when they modernize the opera they make the story not clear logically.

Modern directors love to make noises in operas, like that glass thrown to the wall. The sound was loud, but Verdi didn’t write it. ( The latest production of Onegin in the Bolshoi is unbearable to hear, because they laugh, squeak, drop various heavy things every minute. )

Personally, I don’t like minimalism in sets and costumes, when every male on the stage looks like an office clerk in a grey costume. In this production they showed a whole crowd of people in black or grey costumes and it was ‘symbolic’ and worked. But in many other productions it’s awfully boring.

There is a video of Netrebko singing Lyudmila in Ghergiyev’s production of ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila’ (1995). Glinka wrote a very difficult aria, and she performed it very well.
Costumes were very good too. And it’s clear that her beauty and charm are not suffer from folk costumes:).


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for a very informative and insightful comment! I basically agree with you, as I always tend to do. Your information on her pronunciation is very interesting. An unusual case of a Russian compromising one of the big principles of singing opera in Russia, where opera is still theater to a large extent. Almost certainly, she is sacrificing enunciation to vocal production and line, as is commonly done in the West. That's an angle I had not thought of, yet as soon as you mentioned it, I immediately saw that you were right. I'll check out the Ruslan and Lyudmila video.

Thanks so much for your always insightful and informative comments, and I'm really, really, glad your computer is up and running again:-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you,I'm very glad that I'm back too.

“An unusual case of a Russian compromising one of the big principles of singing opera in Russia, where opera is still theater to a large extent. Almost certainly, she is sacrificing enunciation to vocal production and line, as is commonly done in the West.”

Unfortunately, she is not the only one contemporary Russian singer with bad pronunciation, there are many of them. Dmitry Hvorostovsky’s diction is muffled either. Many others try to sing like the great stars Netrebko and Hvorostovsky, so diction is not very important. The main thing is to sing “like Italians do”. They all (and their teachers) think that the old Soviet school was not correct, that there were too many ‘open’ sounds in Russian singing, and now they mainly sing in a very ‘covered’ manner. They also sing in Italian more often than in Russian, because every young singer wants to perform in European theaters.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for a dose of reality. I guess I have mixed feelings about that, but perhaps it is a very simple matter. I suppose it would be fair to say that opera is basically (although certainly not exclusively) an Italian art form. The opera that is most popular throughout the world is Italian opera, and it's their theater, their language, their culture. So it makes sense to want to sing like their singers do, since they are so successful at it. Part of me wants to resist that fact, but it seems to be everywhere the case. I suppose it could be compared to ballet. Virtually everyone agrees that great ballet dancing is essentially (although again not exclusively) Russian. So, if someone wants to learn to sing, go to Italy---if they want to learn to dance, go to Russia! Maybe it's that simple:-)

Anonymous said...

Netrebko will be an interesting singer to watch over the next few years to see if she can focus on reworking a voice that has become too large, with accompanying greater inflexibility, for her forays into true bel canto roles like Norina or Lucia di Lammermoor. She sounds to me a very likely good singer of Puccini in the Italian repertory and certainly some of the Russian or slavic repertory. I would welcome her in a production of "Onegin" or as almost any of the Puccini heroines calling for a big lyric voice. On modernizing the setting of operas, I agree that unless a good case can be made for a powerful central metaphor so that the work can be carried through its dramatic arc on a symbolic plane, it will not be very unified and even with that solved, it often loses its emotional impact on an audience. I do think that the more recent tendency to try to unify vocal and physical communication of a singer to create a more believable stage character is a positive development. For some singers, the ability to use their bodies as part of the same expressive set as their voices seems intuitive, but for many it is not and it must be learned. Those who are naturals at this as Netrebko is to some extent seem to be more successful at engaging contemporary audiences. But it is a fine balance. Dessay exaggerates the physical rather than allowing it to be an extension of what her voice expresses. Someone who seems quite successful at keeping this balance between vocal and physical communication is Kaufmann. This more than anything accounts for his success, I believe much more than PR, his better than average looks (but there are others far better looking per se), the quality of his voice, or even his superior musicality. If Calleja, who is not a natural in this regard, could start to understand and feel his entire body as his expressive instrument rather than just his voice, he would probably be the most successful lyric tenor out there.

My thoughts for the day :-)

Edmund St. Austell said...

And deeply thought-provoking thoughts for the day they are, Lesley! What you say makes a lot of sense, and I am the first to admit that I probably have some coming to grips with modern times to do in this regard. Certainly the incorporation of body language makes sense from a dramatic point of view--it is part of every actor's repertoire. Where the, um, shall we say, "excessively heavy" fit into this picture (if at all) is perhaps not so easy to determine. It may well be the case that the fat singer may be increasingly a thing of the past. It does seem that a pretty woman is becoming more of the norm than it was even a few decades ago. Be that as it may, I think your ideas on the unification of vocal and and physical communication make a lot of sense, and are well worth pondering. Thank you for a wonderful comment!

Anonymous said...

I just saw the Met's Don Pasquale on Public TV. Many of the observations and criticisms above were apparent in the production. In my opinion, Netrebko looked and sang beautifully, as did the others. The summersault, and other overacting, kind of threw me though. Thank goodness her body is controlled by ballet lessons rather than tap dancing, or we'd have a circus rather than a musical comedy. I loved the music and Hugh Heffner should be playing the Don. What I don't care for is young beautiful sopranos suggesting that the old ways are completely wrong and, "let me show you how it should be."

Edmund St. Austell said...

A most interesting comment! Yes, you have hit all the buttons--that is Netrebko in a nutshell and I especially like the "thank god she didn't study tap" idea. That, I fear, could be next. IN which case, as you suggest, it becomes circus, not a musical. I would personally substitute the word "cabaret" for circus. That is something I can definitely see happening. Cabaret has many of the stylized qualities of opera to begin with, since they both owe an evolutionary debt to Commedia dell'arte. Thanks for an excellent comment.

G. Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

This has been a very insightful article, both from the discussion and the article itself.

I would just like to add one point. The italianità of opera is a very perplexing thing. It originated in Italy, of course, but spread all around Europe. Italian singing is much prized and imitated, as the above commentators have discussed, but at the same time, it seems that in the last two decades, many people have worked to slight the importance of Verdi and Puccini. As I always say, it is not a coincidence or evil plotting that, for example, Il Trovatore has been marching triumphantly around the world for more than 150 years.

But regarding Netrebko more specifically, her ventures into the Italian repertoire in the past two years have been extremely interesting, no?

Thank-you for a wonderful article and discussion.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Most interesting discussion, yet again. J.D Hobbes hits the nail on the head as Verdi had the problem of La Traviata being one of the first operas set in the time it was composed. I believe the setting of Paris may have been a compromise to appease the sensors. It's fascinating to read the many compromises that Verdi made with his operas like Rigoletto and Un Ballo for instance to satisfy the sensors. Originally in Un Ballo the reason for the setting of Boston with a governor instead of Stockholm and a king was that the sensors did not like the idea of a king being assassinated on stage.

I watched the La Traviata aria with some trepidation - I did think of closing my eyes but I didn't. There's no doubt that a clearly beautiful, healthy looking Netrebko dying of TB is hard to sell. It might make a beautiful film but does it do justice to the composer's music? I don't know.
The Netrebko voice is very beautiful. It remains to be seen how it will be employed in the coming years.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for an interesting comment. I suppose, as has been suggested by others who have commented, that the box office does play a big part. She certainly is popular. It remains to be seen how she will play when she stacks on a few years and a few pounds. When that day comes, audiences may be less interested in antics and much more traditionally interested in sheer vocalism. What cannot be denied, in any case, is her extraordinary popularity at the moment.

Verdiwagnerite said...

I concur with G. Fiurezi-Maragioglio regarding Il Trovatore. Verdi must have got something right. The triumvirate of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La traviata, along with La Boheme, form the backbones of many opera seasons around the world. The plots might be a bit silly, but let's face it, aren't they all. It's all about the music and the voices for me.

Edmund St. Austell said...

You and virtually everyone else,my friend, including yours truly:-) Yes, it's all about great voices singing great music, and that includes verismo and bel canto both.

MPDJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you Mark. The best thing would be to contact me at my email addres:

There you can let me know how I might be most helpful.

Anonymous said...

Dear Edmund,

I have been following your blog off and on - what I read has always given me insight and pleasure, thank you so very much!

Yesterday I had occasion to look up what you had to say about Anna Netrebko some years back and I want to thank you especially for this article: For the first time someone put into words the vague misgivings I have always felt about her singing but couldn´t really lay my finger on. It is, as you say, indeed some sort of "indiscretion" (and I DON´T mean the way she works with her body, no, it is in the singing itself) - the voice is beautiful, the technique certainly accomplished, but both leave something to be desired - that mystery that can and should only be hinted at in a performance and will vanish as soon as ostentation smothers it. You put it admirably and made it plain for me - once again, many thanks"

PS Is there any news about the long-awaited new Quartararo discs? I have visited the website frequently but they haven´t even announced it yet ...

With best wishes,
Oliver Rehlinger (Berlin)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you! Great comment! No, I was beginning to wonder about the Quartararo recordings myself. I'll see what I can find out, and if I doscover anything interesting, I'll put out a notice as a special announcement, both here and on my channel. Thanks for mentioning it.