Anna Netrebko, one of the reigning divas of present day opera, has released a new album titled “Verismo”. I think it will be perceived differently by three groups of listeners. One group includes the critics, musicologists, and opera connoisseurs. Another is the opera newbies, and a third is those in between, where I reside, fans who have enjoyed opera for a while, but are not expert. The professionals and cognoscente will analyze whether the arias are good examples of “verismo”; they will find the flaws in her diction, singing, and emotional interpretations. They will question whether this lyric soprano has the correct voice type now to sing many of these arias that require dramatic heft; many will worry that doing so may erode her voice. Hers will be compared to other singer’s interpretations and performances. Her conductor, Antonio Pappano, will also draw critical comment. Many will praise all those things and profess her to be an extraordinary singer whose beautiful voice has matured as she has reached the height of her powers. Many reviews can already be found online from around the globe, as examples of these views. For those of us who are perhaps more familiar with pop music, this album could be compared to Barbara Streisand or Frank Sinatra publishing in their maturity ‘the’ definitive album of pop standards, arranged around a theme. Opera devotees can think of it as an outstanding recital.
The opera newbies will be thrilled by the gorgeous singing and emotion of the arias. It will be like getting to eat the center cut of a beautiful and perfectly cooked piece of meat; the serving is flawless. They will look up what the label verismo is supposed to represent and find that it was a post-Romantic style favored mainly by Italian composers around the end of the nineteenth century, best represented by two short operas often performed together, Cavaleria Rusticana and Pagliacci; a selection from Pagliacci is on the album. Roughly translated as realism, verismo opera sought to focus attention on the problems and raw emotions of ordinary people. It reflected a literary style of the same name and was sometimes shocking and offensive to the opera fans of its day. For opera newbies this album will be a treasure revisited many times.
For those of us who sit in between those first two groups, listening to “Verismo” is akin to eating that delicious meat but also experiencing the absence of the sauce, and the potatoes, and the steamed asparagus, and the wine. It is indeed beautiful and perfectly prepared, but it is meat followed by meat followed by more meat. I found that in the second half of the album that the arias were starting to sound somewhat alike. For those arias for which I know the back story I was able to supply some of the missing context, enhancing my enjoyment. For those for which I did not know the story, it was beautiful singing and sound. To best enjoy the album it may be advisable to read the libretto for each aria. While I listened to the album, I could not help wishing during each aria that I was instead in the audience watching and hearing a great diva, especially Anna Netrebko, performing each of these operas. I wanted the sauce (hearing it live) and I wanted the potatoes, asparagus, and wine (the context). This was a new feeling for me while listening to recital albums. Oh, I will go back to listen to “Verismo” again, and probably again, but as great as it is, it will never be as satisfying as being there. To get an idea how context affects the impact of the arias, listen to the sample below from "Verismo" and then listen to the same aria as utilized in the movie, "Philadelphia"; you can find the film clip in the OperaGene blog post on how to listen to opera.
Ms. Nebrebko is one of the most recorded modern opera stars. The album by Deutsche Grammophon contains 16 arias; the last five are essentially the last act of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. It also includes the aria "Ebben? Ne andro lontana" from La Wally which was used in the movie "Diva", warmly remembered by me. You can view the entire aria list on the Amazon website. For the album, Antonio Pappano conducts the Chorus and Orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia; it also includes duets with her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov who sounds great to me. The “Verismo” CD is available from the usual outlets for about $16-20. It is $12 on iTunes and can be streamed from Spotify or Apple Music by those with subscriptions. It is most definitely worth a listen. You can also view the trailer about the making of the album below, focused around the "La mamma morta" aria.