Opera Arias (CD)

Deutsche Grammophon
Current Stock:
Anna Netrebko, Wiener Philharmoniker, Gianandrea Noseda

"When you see Don Giovanni in Salzburg next week," Martin Engstroem, the then head of A&R at Deutsche Grammophon, told me in 2002, "watch out for the Donna Anna. A gifted young woman. We've signed a contract with her and will be making her first recording this autumn. I think she might make it to the top." I can still recall Engstroem's prophetic words at the 2002 Verbier Festival. He was referring to a young Russian soprano from Krasnodar, who, not quite thirty-one years old, was due to sing in the new production of Don Giovanni that opened the 2002 Salzburg Festival: Anna Netrebko.

Her name was barely known in Europe, although she had spent the last nine years as a member of the Mariinsky Opera in St Petersburg, a company which, run by the mighty Valery Gergiev, was familiar in the West from its frequent international tours. She had studied at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory opposite the theatre and performed various odd jobs for the company, including working as a cleaner, in order to get closer to the world of opera and learn the tricks of the trade at first hand.

On winning the 1993 Moscow Glinka Competition, Anna Netrebko was offered a permanent engagement with the Mariinsky Opera. Shortly afterwards she made her German debut, appearing as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro during a visit by the Mariinsky company to the 1994 Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival. She then hit the headlines in San Francisco in Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila. Elsewhere, too, her repertory was remarkably wide-ranging: in St Petersburg and on tour, she was heard as Rossini's Rosina, Mozart's Queen of Night and Pamina, Bizet's Micaëla, Donizetti's Adina, and Ninetta in Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges and Louisa in the same composer's Betrothal in a Monastery. It was in St Petersburg in 1998 that she first essayed the role of Violetta Valéry. Shortly afterwards she made her Salzburg Festival debut as a Flowermaiden in concert performances of Parsifal under Gergiev.

But otherwise Anna Netrebko rarely had to perform secondary roles. The Russian repertory, too, was largely ignored, for it includes few important parts for a lyric coloratura voice. The chief exception was her sensitive Natasha in Prokofiev's War and Peace, which she sang on tour for the Mariinsky when the company visited London, New York, Milan and Madrid. "Audrey Hepburn with a voice" she was called at that time.

Instead, the roles she chose for her various debuts included Bellini's Amina, Donizetti's Lucia, Antonia in Les Contes d'Hoffmann, a lighthearted Teresa in Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini in Amsterdam, Gilda in Washington, Ilia in Mozart's Idomeneo in San Francisco, Musetta in La bohème, Zerlina in Don Giovanni and Nanetta in Falstaff. Gergiev's fledgling soprano took flight, principally in America.

Then came Salzburg. A woman in a Prada dress captivated the Festival's snobbish audience with a veritable flood of sound. It was the first time for many years that Salzburg audiences had heard such impassioned and yet lean-toned singing, the coloratura exactly in place, the voice fully rounded in its lower register and yet free and bell-like in its upper reaches, the tone quality slightly veiled yet with a shimmering sheen to it. The sensation of this memorable evening was neither the extreme tempi adopted by the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt nor Martin Kusej's coolly puzzling production but Anna Netrebko's Donna Anna, her seeming naturalness concealing supreme artistry and self-discipline, her singing marked by crystalline coloratura and fluent passagework.

A star was born, and the rest is history. Within three years at the most - the date of her Salzburg Violetta alongside Rolando Villazón in 2005 - "La Netrebko" had established herself as the prima donna of the 21st century with advertising contracts, open-air concerts and film and television appearances. And yet opera remains her professional focus. She even reprised the role of Donna Anna in another prestigious opening night - on 7 December 2011 to mark the new season at La Scala, Milan.

Anna Netrebko's Salzburg appearances in this role were not officially documented, but her second-act aria, "Non mi dir", featured in her first solo album, which was released in July 2003 with the simple, straightforward title Opera Arias, its cover showing a young woman of girlish beauty gazing directly at the camera. The CD was a visiting card bringing together arias from her present and future repertory: Teresa, Lucia, Ilia, Amina, Musetta and Massenet's Manon, which she first sang onstage in 2006 and which remains one of her favourite roles. Others, such as Gounod's Marguerite, are ones she is only now starting to consider singing in their entirety, while others again still await her. Here one thinks of Rusalka, a role one hopes she may be persuaded to sing onstage not only because her "Song to the Moon" is invested with such a wonderful sense of yearning. It was her only foray into the Slav repertory among all the Italian and French arias. A Russian album followed three years later.

For her Deutsche Grammophon debut Anna Netrebko found herself in distinguished company, accompanied as she was by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Gianandrea Noseda, a conductor with considerable experience in the field of opera. A handful of mezzo-soprano interjections were added by the soprano's up-and-coming colleague Elīna Garanča. The album reveals a young and sympathetically fresh voice with a distinctive timbre in some of the most beautiful soprano arias, which she performs with a touching naïveté but also with real skill. No more, but it is a lot. As such, the release held out a promise that in the meantime has been kept in the finest possible way.

- Manuel Brug