Posts Tagged ‘Anna Netrebko’

Great moments in opera: Otello

November 28, 2013

If pressed, I would name Otello as my favourite of Verdi’s operas. It has magnificent music, well-developed characters, and, of course, a great story. Verdi was tempted out of semi-retirement to write it — it followed his previous opera, Aida, by a full sixteen years — and it is amazing to consider that not only had he lost none of his dramatic sense and musical inspiration in the interim but, if anything, both were keener than they had ever been.

The music of Otello is especially impressive. The orchestration is richer and more textured than is typical with Verdi, and the seams between the arias and and the dramatic recitative have been concealed to a greater extent than in his earlier work. There is an expansiveness, a calm breadth in the music that is very seductive. The tragic sensibility which I admired in Simon Boccanegra is present in this opera too, but here it is wedded to a dramatic arc that is without superfluous elements or overly complex machinations, and it is all the more powerful as a result.

This matter of adapting the play for the opera is worth commenting on. It is rare to find a drama that plays well both in the theatre and the opera house: there is no great operatic Hamlet or The Tempest, and few theatre-goers are lining up to see Beaumarchais’s Le Barbier de Séville or Sardou’s La Tosca. Opera is an art that works with big gestures, and is most successful when the stories are relatively clear and the characters relatively simple. This general observation highlights the skill with which Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, adapted Shakespeare’s play. I read that the libretto is just 1/7 the length of the play, yet it contains the essential action, and the central characters — Otello, Desdemona, and Iago — have faithfully inherited their personalities from Shakespeare’s originals. (Perhaps Iago in the opera is not quite so complicated as Iago in the play.) It is one of the best libretti in the repertoire.

Otello has been described as “one long diminuendo“. It begins with a tremendous bang: Otello arrives in Cyprus in the midst of a great storm. The crowd sings a tumultuous chorus, and Otello makes a resounding entrance with a shout of “Esultate!”, celebrating his naval victory over the Turks. It is a wonderful beginning. This clip is from Milan in the late 1970s, with Placido Domingo singing Otello. The lighting is dreadful, and the subtitles are in Italian, but hopefully the rousing start comes through anyway. Otello’s appearance is at about 4:00 in this clip:

Later that evening, Otello and Desdemona are finally left alone to share a gorgeous love duet, Gia nella notte densa (Now in the dark night). It is sung in this clip by Placido Domingo (again) and Anna Netrebko in a concert performance with English subtitles.

In Act II Iago has a very famous aria, Credo in un Dio crudel (I believe in a cruel God), a kind of malicious manifesto in which he gives full vent to his nihilism and self-hatred. Iago in this opera is truly a monster — exaggerated for effect beyond what one could attribute even to Shakespeare’s Iago. In this clip we hear Piero Cappuccilli in an old, fuzzy film, with subtitles. This looks a bit corny; try to squint.

The remainder of Act II is devoted to Iago’s poisoning Otello’s mind with doubts of Desdemona’s fidelity, and early in Act III Otello confronts her. This pivotal dramatic scene is sung here by Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming, with English subtitles:

The fourth and final Act, set in Desdemona’s bedchamber, is as good as opera gets. Desdemona sings a long, unbelievably beautiful section: first the “Willow Song”, and then, as she prepares for bed, Ave Maria. These are among the most celebrated soprano arias in the repertoire. Here is Marina Poplavskaya singing the “Willow Song”; the subtitles are unfortunately in German, but the text with English translation can be seen here.

And here is the same singer with the Ave Maria section; German subtitles again. The text is not the traditional prayer, so you may wish to consult the English translation here.

Soon enough Otello enters the bedchamber and accuses Desdemona of unfaithfulness. The ensuing scene, in all its tragic glory, is quite long but superb; it is the tail-end of the “long diminuendo“. I have had to split it into two parts: in the first, Otello is sung by Placido Domingo and Desdemona by Renee Fleming; there are English subtitles. The second excerpt picks up where the previous one left off, except that Renee Fleming has been replaced by Barbara Frittoli and the English subtitles have disappeared. It is the best I can do. It was also, I dare say, just about the best Verdi could do.

Great moments in opera: Il Trovatore

April 11, 2013

My indispensable old copy of Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book has this to say of Il Trovatore:

The libretto of Il Trovatore is considered the acme of absurdity…

which doesn’t seem a good beginning, but then there is this:

…the popularity of the opera is believed to be entirely due to the almost unbroken melodiousness of Verdi’s score.

And it’s true: the music is glorious, and Il Trovatore (which, incidentally, means “The Troubadour”) is among the most frequently staged operas in the world (ranked, most recently, #21). My initial short list for “great moments” had fifteen items on it, which (you will be happy to know) I have whittled down to just four (or five).

I am not going to try to explain the story. Key events have already taken place when the curtain rises, and, though we do learn about them in a monologue, the opera never really recovers from this misbegotten start. Here is a synopsis; I’ve read it a few times, but it makes little sense to me. In the clips below, therefore, we shall focus on the music rather than the dramatic situations.

The music of the Act II aria Stride la vampa (Upward the flames) is among the most memorable and important in the opera. The principal theme recurs frequently in the score in a variety of guises, and I think of it as something like the “Trovatore theme”. It is sung by Acuzena, an old gypsy woman, and the Aria Database provides this helpful summary: “Azucena describes her mother’s death to Manrico and the crowd of gypsies. Her mother was burned at the stake for being a witch while the ones who falsely convicted her laughed and enjoyed themselves.” I’ll take their word for it:

Act III brings us Di quella pira (Of that pyre), one of the showstopping-est of all tenor arias, the forbidding reputation of which rests principally on the high C which our hero, Manrico, is called upon to deliver. It is interesting to note that the high C was not actually written by Verdi, but was inserted by a young turk in the early days, and now every tenor worth his salt has to add it too. The Kobbe book again: “The tenor who sings the high C in ‘Di quella pira’ without getting red in the face will hardly be credited with having sung it at all.” Here is Pavarotti:

In the fourth and final act we have a famous sequence which consists of a few arias, but which is sometimes grouped together as “Leonora’s scene”. It begins with D’amor sull’ali rosee (On rosy wings of love), a meltingly beautiful aria in which Leonora expresses her love for Manrico. It is followed by a choral chanting of the Miserere, of which my Kobbe Opera Book remarks that it “was for many years … the most popular of all melodies from opera”. It launches Leonora into Tu vedrai (You will see), in which she sings of her determination to remain with Manrico to the end. I gather that Manrico must be in some kind of trouble.

Here is the whole scene, in a concert performance by Anna Netrebko. D’amor sull’ali rosee begins at 3:00 in this clip, but it would be a pity to miss the preceding recitative; the Miserere begins at about 8:00 and Tu vedrai follows hard upon.

In closing, I cannot help linking to a performance of Ai nostri monti (Back to our mountains), a gorgeous duet sung by Manrico and Azucena that seems to indicate that the opera has a happy ending. Here are Placido Domingo and Fiorenza Cossotto:

Great moments in opera: Rusalka

April 23, 2012

Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka is among the most popular Czech operas in the repertoire — not that there is a great deal of competition. It premiered in 1901, and though it has apparently enjoyed considerable popularity among Czech speakers in the meantime, I believe that it is only in the last few decades that it has become widely known in wider opera circles.

The story is based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale about a mermaid who falls in love with a man and is granted the opportunity, in exchange for her voice, to leave the sea to gain his love — the same story that inspired the Disney film The Little Mermaid. The resemblances don’t go very deep, however: in Dvořák’s version, Rusalka is betrayed by the prince, kills him with a kiss, and ends the opera as a water demon.

The music of the opera is quite beautiful. There is a good deal of wet and watery music, and Dvořák seems to have given the harp a prominent place in his score, lending it an enchanting quality. The vocal writing is pleasant, if not extremely memorable — with one notable exception: in Act I, when she first falls in love with the man, Rusalka sings the Song to the Moon, which surely ranks as one of the loveliest arias by Dvořák or anyone else. It is a beauty.

It is sung in this video by Anna Netrebko; I have posted this video before, mostly to make fun of it. Nonetheless, beggars cannot be choosers:

Great moments in opera: Roméo et Juliette

January 6, 2012

Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette had its premiere in Paris in 1867. It is a quite faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, even following the five act structure of its model. Though not an extremely well-known opera, it apparently enjoys greater popularity in France than elsewhere. I had never heard it before sitting down this week with a DVD performance. My first impressions were mixed; it has its beauties, and of course the story is good, but there is something about nineteenth-century French opera (and, for that matter, eighteenth-century and seventeenth-century French opera) that leaves me cool. Nonetheless, a few ‘great moments’ presented themselves.

In the first Act, Romeo and his friends attend the masked ball at the home of the Capulets. When the party has ended, Juliet sings Je veux vivre dans ce rêve (I want to live in this dream), which is sometimes simply called Juliette’s Waltz. It’s a popular recital piece, sung in this clip by Diana Damrau:

Early in the second Act Romeo approaches Juliette’s balcony and sings a lovely cavatina, Ah! Levè-toi soleil (Ah! Arise, fair sun), in which he expresses his love for her. She is inside at the time, and only emerges when the song is completed. Here is a concert performance by Juan Diego Florez:

The burden of Act III is to get the two married, and Act IV opens with the lovers awaking after their wedding night. Naturally, they sing a love duet: Nuit d’hymenee, O douce nuit d’amour (Night hymeneal, O sweet night of love). This goes on for quite a while, but it is pretty. Here are Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna. I believe this production is from the Met. Thank goodness they don’t fall off the bed!

We all know what happens in the final Act. Here is the tragic finale, sung again by Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna, in a clip with English subtitles. This is pretty great:

Great moments in opera: Anna Bolena

October 16, 2011

Yesterday I was able to attend, for the first time, one of the Met Live in HD broadcasts. (This is a programme whereby the Metropolitan Opera in New York broadcasts live via satellite to movie theatres around the world.) I saw Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, with Anna Netrebko singing the title role. I enjoyed myself thoroughly. It’s a good way to see an opera: you get the excitement of a live performance, but with close-up visuals of the singers, plus some backstage footage, including interviews with the principals. I’d like to go again someday.

Anna Bolena is not one of Donizetti’s most popular operas, though it does retain a toe-hold on the periphery of the repertory. He wrote 70-odd in total, so it is not surprising that not all are in wide circulation. Anna Bolena was his 35th, and was, I am told, his first big success. That’s resilience for you. The story is about the fateful last days of Anne Boleyn. There are five main roles: Anne, as the troubled Queen; Henry VIII, her (gratifyingly) villainous husband, who is looking for an excuse to rid himself of Anne in order to make room for Jane Seymour; then there is Jane, of course, a confidant of Anne but also secretly carrying on with Henry; Lord Percy, in love with Anne for many years and now returned from exile; and Smeaton, a royal page, also in love with Anne, whose fantasies become the occasion for her downfall.

I am not a connoisseur of bel canto opera; though I may listen for ever so long, I cannot really tell my Donizettis from my Bellinis and my Rossinis. There is certainly something formulaic about the music of Anna Bolena, but it’s a winning formula, and I am not complaining. Donizetti wrote the entire thing in about a month. It falls easily on the ear, is full of beautiful lines and brilliant high notes, and includes a smattering of dramatic duets and trios. At just under three hours in performance, the argument could be made that it goes on longer than it needs to, and the second act (of two) in particular could be profitably edited for brevity.

The relative rarity of this opera translates into few available video clips, and none (as far as I can find) with English subtitles. Here is a duet, called Va’, infelice (Go, unhappy one), for Anne and Jane, from Act II. Anne, condemned by Henry and awaiting her fate, offers forgiveness to Jane for her betrayal, but Jane receives the forgiveness like a burden. “Your pardon is worse than the scorn which I feared.” The two roles are sung here by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca, from a Viennese production staged earlier this year. It would be hard to imagine two more glamorous sopranos in these regal roles!

The most famous scene in the opera is probably the ‘mad scene’ from near the end of Act II. It is not so famous as Donizetti’s other mad scene, from Lucia di Lammermoor, but it is fair to say that it is Anna Bolena‘s big hit. Anne is in prison, and has gone mad. She sings about how her wedding day has finally arrived, the king awaits her, and so forth. A chorus of ladies comments on how sad is her plight. Then she thinks of Percy, and of death, and imagines a scene of pastoral beauty: a quiet river, and green trees, where she can forget her troubles. Anna Netrebko sings again, from the same Viennese production.

Finally, here is the last scene in the opera, in which Anne, facing execution, and in response to pitying comments from the crowd, asks God’s mercy on those who are taking her life. It’s a moment of heroic magnanimity, played rather too vengefully by Anna Netrebko here. But I like the final gesture. The closing moments of the Met production were even better: Anna exposed her neck, and then began to rise, on a platform, toward the menacing figure of the executioner, high above the stage, as the curtain fell. Terrific.

Great moments in opera: La Sonnambula

July 19, 2010

After listening sequentially through ten of Wagner’s operas I was ready for a little something that would clear my musical palette, and so I turned to the Italian bel canto and Bellini’s La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker).  It was just the thing.  Bellini’s music is about beautiful singing — gloriously beautiful singing — and not much more.

The story of La Sonnambula is briefly told: Amina is engaged to Elvino, but one night she is discovered in the bedroom of another man, and Elvino breaks off the marriage plans.  It is then revealed that Amina is a sleepwalker, and had wandered into the forbidden bedroom on one of her nocturnal walks.  The marriage plans are restored, and they live happily ever after.  That’s it.  God bless Italy.

The music is delightful from start to finish, with long and gorgeous vocal lines that always fall easily on the ear, and plenty of high notes to dazzle the crowd.  I have selected two excerpts, but I could have selected a dozen.  It’s a wonderful opera.

Here is an Act I duet between Amina and Elvino, Prendi l’anel ti dono (Take the ring I give you), in which Elvino proposes to Amina.  English subtitles are included.  The singers are Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez, in a performance given a few years ago at the Metropolitan Opera in New York:

Probably the most famous aria from La Sonnambula is Ah! non credea (Ah! I hadn’t thought), which is Amina’s last “sleepwalking aria”.  As she walks, she sings of her love for Elvino.  This is witnessed by the villagers — it so happens that she is sleepwalking on the roof of one of the village houses — and leads to her exoneration and the happy reinstatement of her engagement.  It is sung here by the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in a BBC Proms concert from a few years ago.  I must say that I love Netrebko’s voice, and I am not just saying that because she is incredibly beautiful. No, I am not.  English subtitles are included, but one hardly needs them.

It so happens that Quin Finnigan over at Korrektiv has been listening to La Sonnambula too, and you can click over to read his thoughts and hear another performance of Ah! non credea.