International superstars Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón give inspired performances in Massenet's passionate opera, Manon. Netrebko gives full range to her abilities as a singer and actress in portraying innocence, lust, greed and, above all, beauty. It is Netrebko's mesmerizing performance which makes Villazón's youthful passion and ultimate despair even more authentic and heart-breaking. The setting in this production has been updated to the 1950s and the entire opera takes place as if Manon were the star of her own film. Indeed, Netrebko transforms her character from the innocence of Audrey Hepburn through the voluptuousness of Marilyn Monroe into the tragedy of Ingrid Bergman. The work of director Vincent Paterson, known for his work on Broadway and in music videos, is especially effective in creating an energetic and ultimately tragic performance with stunning visual splendor. Netrebko and Villazón, the true dream-team for this opera, are joined by the conductor Daniel Barenboim who leads the Staatskapelle Berlin in a spontaneous and passionate performance.
Baroque music is not the usual province of soprano Anna Netrebko, or contralto Marianna Pizzolato, or conductor Antonio Pappano, or the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma, so the listener might approach this tribute to the 300th anniversary of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi with some skepticism, but the performers do a terrific job. The orchestra uses modern instruments, so this is never going to be mistaken for a recording by Baroque specialists, but everyone involved approaches the challenge with such sensitivity and such evident excitement that listeners who don't demand absolute adherence to cutting-edge developments in early music practice are likely to be swept up.
This new Traviata belongs near the top of the fine recorded versions of the opera despite a serious vocal problem in the middle. The great news is in the casting of the two lovers: Rolando Villazon's Alfredo is just about perfect. He sings with handsome, shaded tone, great attention to the text–his anger feels as real as his grief and passion–and absolute freedom throughout the range.
It’s no secret that soprano Anna Netrebko is one of opera’s true box office draws: Her performances of Il Trovatore last season were among the few nights the Met was completely sold out. But her new CD, Verismo, reveals she is more than just a star; her performances of arias and scenes from Italian opera highlight an artistry that is both subtle and thrilling.