CD Review: ‘Verismo’

September 19, 2016 Updated: September 19, 2016

Anna Netrebko’s voice has darkened over the 20 years of her career, and she has been changing her roles to accommodate that change. She recently canceled her appearances in the title role of Bellini’s “Norma,” explaining that the part was no longer suitable for her.

Instead, she has embarked on the heavier repertory of verismo operas with marked success. Reviewing her performance as Manon Lescaut at the Salzburg Festival last month, one critic (Matthew Rye) titled his review “Manon from Heaven” and raved about the “sublime account” of the opera.

Netrebko’s latest CD, “Verismo” (on Deutsche Grammophon), shows how exciting she can be in this repertoire.

‘Verismo’ shows how exciting Netrebko can be in this repertoire.

Verismo, an Italian word that means truth, began in the late 19th century as an attempt to deal with realistic subjects and violent passions in both literature and music. One notable example is the writer Giovanni Verga, who wrote about his native Sicily in novels and short stories. His “Cavalleria Rusticana” was made into an opera by Pietro Mascagni that is usually paired with Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” Both operas depict love, jealousy, and murder.

“Verismo” begins with “Ecco: respiro appena … Io son l’umile ancella” from Francesco Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur.” The singer portrays a prominent actress, who describes herself as merely the instrument of the playwright. She claims her aim is fidelity to the author’s intention. Netrebko ends the aria with a heavenly pianissimo.

“La mamma morta” from Umberto  Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier” takes place during the French Revolution. In the dramatic aria, Maddalena (the love interest in the opera) recounts the murder of her mother in the doorway of her room. Filmgoers will remember the scene in “Philadelphia,” in which Maria Callas’s recording of this aria was played while Tom Hanks’s character spoke about it ecstatically. Netrebko doesn’t outdo Callas, but her version would still bring the house down at the Met or La Scala.

In “Un bel di vedremo” from “Madama Butterfly,” the title character expresses her faith that one day her American husband will return to her. The performance and Giacomo Puccini’s music conveys the character’s underlying doubt about his fidelity.

Netrebko displays her range with two arias from Puccini’s “Turandot,” which takes place in ancient China. First, she is the innocent slave Liù in “Signore, ascolta!” Then, she is the icy princess singing the fiery “In questa reggia.”

In “Qual fiamma avea nel guardo! … Stridono lassù” from “Pagliacci,” Nedda is in love with Silvio but fears her husband Canio’s jealousy, with good reason; he subsequently kills her.

Puccini’s title character in “Tosca” is also in desperate straits. Her lover, Cavaradossi, has been captured by the evil police chief Scarpia. The villain says he will free the artist if Tosca yields to his advances. In the anguished “Vissi d’arte,” she sings that she has lived for art and love. She has always treated others with kindness and wonders why God is punishing her.

Catalani’s “La Wally” is rarely performed, but sopranos frequently sing the Act I aria “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana.” Here, the character is leaving her childhood home, perhaps never to return.

In Amilcare Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda,” the title character’s situation is even worse. In the dramatic monologue “Suicidio!” the “joyous woman” of the title contemplates ending her life as her only solution.

In the Act III aria from Arrigo Boïto’s “Mefistofele,” “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” Margareta is in prison for the crimes of drowning her baby and poisoning her mother. 

The CD offers a generous selection from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” the only role on the album that Netrebko has performed on stage.  First, she sings “In quelle trine morbide,” in which the lead character recalls the humble abode where she found happiness. This is followed by the complete last act in which she is partnered by the ringing tenor of her husband, Yusif Eyvazov. He also joined her in the “Turandot” excerpt.

Antonio Pappano ably conducts the chorus and orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia. The liner notes helpfully include the translations of all the arias.

Netrebko will bring her sublime “Manon Lescaut” to the Metropolitan Opera on Nov. 14, 18, 25, 30, and Dec. 3. Her Des Grieux will be Marcelo Álvarez.

She is also scheduled to perform at the Richard Tucker Gala at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 30 with a number of other stars, including Eyvazov.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade.