Anna Netrebko & Rolando Villazón

Romeo et Juliette – Overture; Je veux vivre
Le Mage – Ah! Parais! Parais, astre de mon ciel
Manon – Toi! Vous!
Eugene Onegin – Polonaise; Kuda, kuda
Iolanta – Tvajo malchan’je nepan atna
Six Songs, Op.4 – Oh, never sing to me again
Carmen – Prelude to Act IV
Les filles de Cadix
La Taberna del Puerto – No puede ser
Luisa Fernanda – Callate, Corrazon!
Cavalleria Rusticana – Intermezzo; Mamma, quel vino
La Wally – Ebben, ne andro lontana
La Bohème – O soave fancuilla

Anna Netrebko (soprano) & Rolando Villazón (tenor)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Emmanuel Villaume

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 31 October, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A well-known British music magazine recently asked whether Anna Netrebko could be considered the world’s greatest soprano. After listening to two disappointing recital discs, to finally hear her in the flesh was going to be interesting. And also Rolando Villazón, a Mexican tenor who has made some highly regarded recordings and is thought of as a potential successor to Plácido Domingo. The programme did attempt – somewhat unusually for this type of event – to avoid the beaten track. It was standing room only in the Barbican Hall and there was a keen sense of anticipation in the audience.After a fine performance of the overture to Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” by the Royal Philharmonic, Netrebko launched into the most famous aria from that opera. Technically this performance was far from perfect: there were notes taken from below, variable intonation, and a trill that was little more than an approximation, as were the fioratura and coloratura elements. Unfortunately there was also virtually no characterisation other than grand gestures.

Nevertheless, Netrebko’s voice does have a rich spinto quality that is arresting and crowd-pleasing. In the Massenet, Villazón was far more subtle, with fine gradations of tone and a true sense of line. I was, however, worried that he did sound as though he was forcing his tone at forte and above. Villazón’s is essentially a small- to medium-sized voice at present, and one can only hope that, unlike say di Stefano and Carreras, he is not persuaded by unscrupulous agents, promoters and conductors to start singing Radames or Manrico. In the “Manon” duet he also came perilously close to shouting, but at every point he characterised far more effectively than Netrebko, whose technical problems continued here.

After an efficient “Eugene Onegin” Polonaise, Netrebko turned to song in Rachmaninov’s early “Ne poy, krasavitas” and here in her native tongue she did sound more involved, but one was still left with a generalised impression, not one where a phrase or word was highlighted to bring additional meaning and emotion.

To his credit, in the concluding two items, Villazón did attempt Russian and in the ‘Onegin’ aria he managed to convey the typically desperate Russian bleakness of the character; the slide from forte to ppp on the final word was exquisite, even if the voice and technique didn’t really convey an authentic Russian style. In the “Iolanta” duet Villazón yet again brought far greater vocal variety and character to every note and phrase than his partner, and there was no suggestion by this time of any undue stress or strain on the voice.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the first half was the juxtaposition of Massenet and Tchaikovsky, which clearly demonstrated that the Russian was the greater opera composer of the two!

The second half commenced with subdued ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ from the audience as Netrebko entered in a tight white Spanish number with raised hoops. This established an Iberian atmosphere and contrasted nicely with the rouched bottom black frock she had wowed the audience with in the first half. Her intonation was far better and there was a greater sense of communication, even if the wonderful sense of knowing sexuality that I once heard Christiane Eda-Pierre achieve through vivid word-painting was missing.

To balance out the Russian pieces were two Zarzuela items of which ‘i No pueda ser!’ was the vocal highlight of the evening. In the opening line Villazón sounded like a small-scale Domingo and every word and note was vividly characterised with the final ‘vivir’ hit and held with huge attack. In the famous ‘Cavalleria’ aria he similarly encapsulated every emotion and brought massive intensity to his final desperate prayer and plea to his mother. Both items clearly showed that, with the right support and advice, Villazón could become a major singer.

Unfortunately we then had to endure Netrebko’s assault on the “La Wally” aria, where everything was at forte or above. It was certainly exciting but it had little to do with the words. After a rather level account of the ‘Bohème’ duet, where the artists exited stage left to sing the final lines – including the unwritten high C from Villazón – there were three encores, which found both artists in Halloween costumes.

The Royal Philharmonic gave enthusiastic support throughout, although curiously each string section was two short of a full complement.

So the greatest soprano? Well, hardly; at present Netrebko lacks the insight to make her a great singer and she does have technical problems which need addressing. Villazón is however potentially a great singer, and it is his contribution to the evening that will remain in the memory.

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