“La Momma Morta”: Netrebko versus Callas

I occasionally enjoy dialing up a specific aria on YouTube or Apple Music and listening to the same tune sung by different singers.  The juxtaposition in my head of Anna Netrebko’s new album, “Verismo”, the subject of my previous blog post, which features “La Momma Morta” from the opera Andrea Chenier by Umberto Giordano and remembering the use of “La Momma Morta” in the movie Philadelphia, sung by Maria Callas caused me to wonder how they compared to each other.  Ms. Netrebko is today’s leading soprano by most accounts, and Ms. Callas is one of the most famous opera singers of all time; she was labeled “La Divina”, Italian for “the divine”, and tops many lists of best sopranos of all time.

The funny thing is that I have tried and tried to become a Callas fan, but my enjoyment of her work is spotty.  During her era, her followers were sometimes fanatics, to the point of attending rival soprano performances, especially Renata Tebaldi, and booing.  She and star tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, were possibly the two most influential singers in promoting opera’s popularity in the second half of the twentieth century.  Callas is credited with having revived the bel canto genre of opera, primarily operas by Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini.  Her life story is fascinating and is featured in a Federico Fellini film, titled “Callas Forever”, 2002, and actress Noomi Rapace is portraying her in a film coming out in 2017 titled, “Callas”

My difficulty with Ms. Callas is one shared by quite a few others; it’s the voice.  New York Times critic, Harold C. Schonberg, writing after her death, said of her: “Her voice was in some respects a flawed instrument, undependable in the high register. In the middle range it had a haunting beauty. Her imposing bottom register had a different quality entirely and it was said of her, not always admiringly, that she had three voices.”  I am very much a voice person.  I have to like the voice to really like the singing.  I have listened to her recordings enough to appreciate her tremendous artistry and her ability to infuse drama and emotion in her performances.  While I am not fond of the sound of her voice, I recognize that it has a natural pathos.  I cannot listen to her without feeling that I am on her side and often have the desire to comfort her.  In her lyrical upper registers, her voice can be quite beautiful, but for me, when it sinks to the mid and especially lower ranges, it can at times grate on my ears.  If you have not given Maria Callas a try, I recommend the album, “The Very Best of Maria Callas”, for a good selection of her arias.  There are also a lot of arias by Ms. Callas on YouTube.  Though it must be appreciated that it was her ability to connect with her audiences in live performances that may have been her unparalleled achievement. 

I have now listened several times to “La Momma Morta” in the YouTube clips further down, by both Callas (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oZi2fovnZQ) and Netrebko (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYJUFtKyuVE).  The lyrics can be found below and should be read to get the most out of the aria.  The singer is Maddalena and the time is that of the French revolution.  She is telling a suitor, Gerard, of her mother’s killing and their house being set afire.  Her servant, Bersi, sacrificed herself to prostitution to save Maddalena, and Maddalena is hopelessly in love with the poet, Andrea Chenier.  She sings that she had lost faith, but is now inspired by love.  Lyrics in Italian and English, side by side, are available from Wikepedia  .  English lyrics are below:

They killed my mother
at the door of my room
She died and saved me.
Later, at dead of night,
I wandered with Bersi,
when suddenly
a bright glow flickers
and lights were ahead of me
the dark street!
I looked –
My childhood home was on fire!
I was alone!
surrounded by nothingness!
Hunger and misery
deprivation, danger!
I fell ill,
and Bersi, so good and pure
made a market, a deal, of her beauty
for me –
I bring misfortune to all who care for me!
It was then, in my grief,
that love came to me.
A voice full of harmony says,
"Keep on living, I am life itself!
Your heaven is in my eyes!
You are not alone.
I collect all your tears
I walk with you and support you!
Smile and hope! I am Love!
Are you surrounded by blood and mire?
I am Divine! I am oblivion!
I am the God who saves the World
I descend from Heaven and make this Earth
A heaven! Ah!
I am love, love, love."
And the angel approaches with a kiss,
and he kisses death –
A dying body is my body.
So take it.
I am already dead matter!

Netrebko has a beautiful sound and sings the aria beautifully with great deal of power and emotion. Clearly she has totally invested herself in this performance.  Hers and Ms. Callas’ renditions are both moving.  The vocal fireworks of both are impressive.  The accompaniment is similar on both recordings, though to my untrained ears, the Pappano orchestration on the Netrebko recording seems more rounded out and movie-like than the rawer classical version on the Callas one, which I like better.  Both the Callas and Netrebko versions are spectacular performances.

Here is the punchline in terms of which recorded version I like better: my gut feeling is that I have to give the slightest edge to the Callas performance, though both are great.  I may have been prejudiced by hearing Callas in the Philadelphia treatment, but I think the opinion I formed by watching that video was mainly an appreciation for the aria.  With Ms. Netrebko, I hear a strong woman who has been wounded and brought down by unspeakable loss, who becomes inspired by love.  With Ms. Callas, I hear a vulnerable woman who has suffered tragedy and found salvation through love.  I think somehow the roughness of Ms. Callas voice emphasizes the pathos inherent in her voice and elicits greater sympathy and empathy.  As a result, what I dislike about Ms. Callas’ voice actually works for her in “La Momma Morta”, for me.

Having declared the slightest and surprising (at least to me) preference for the Callas recording, let me emphasize, I do not wish to give up either version and will listen to both many more times.  We are blessed.  Both are terrific.  I prefer a smorgasbord of greats to a basket of number ones.