Learn more about Anna Netrebko in Recital: Day and Night with engaging program notes, artist bios, and more.
Although he composed three operas, it is in his songs that Sergei Rachmaninoff’s gifts as a composer for the voice found their true fulfillment. He was a supreme master of the romance, following such distinguished predecessors in that form as Glinka and Tchaikovsky. For his texts he preferred Russian Romantic poets, although in his later songs he found some attraction to contemporary texts. Affairs of the heart spoke vividly to him, and he was also unforgettably eloquent depicting the beauties of nature. A stupendous pianist, he created piano accompaniments demanding exceptional virtuosity.
Among the most popular Rachmaninoff songs are two from Opus 21 (1902). Above the quietly rippling piano of “Siren’” (“Lilacs”), the singer’s legato reveals that only in the lilacs themselves can her true happiness be found. Also from Opus 21 is “Zdes’ horosho” (“How lovely it is here”). Here the composer has united voice and piano in a richly expressive flow of lyricism, as the singer rejoices in nature and in her solitude, feeling at one with both God’s presence and her dream of her beloved. Four years after Opus 21 came “U moego okna” (“Before my window”), part of Opus 26. Here sweetness – mixed with passion – in the vocal line perfectly embodies the enchantment the singer feels when breathing in the scent of cherry blossoms. By 1916 Rachmaninoff had become bolder in his harmonic colors, on display in the mesmerizingly atmospheric “Son” (“The Dream”).
Still known best today for his orchestral showpieces, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov devoted a good deal of his energies to vocal music. Among Russian composers of his generation, none surpasses Rimsky Korsakov in communicating the essence of Russia in all its expansiveness, as well as its darkness and mystery. Although his songs often ask a good deal of the singer in their sheer soulfulness, he was also capable of irrepressible exuberance. That quality combines with virtuosity (from the pianist as much as the singer) in the brief but exhilarating “Zvonche zharovonka pen’e” (“The lark sings louder”). In contrast is the passionate melancholy pervading both Pushkin’s poem “Redeet oblakov letuchaja grjada” (“The clouds begin to scatter”) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s surgingly dramatic setting of it.
Richard Strauss came to song literature much earlier than opera (the second composition he produced was a Christmas song, written at age six). The bulk of his best-known songs were written pre-1900, and the greatest of these eminently suit a shining, “full lyric” soprano. For this recital, Anna Netrebko has chosen four Strauss songs requiring the ultimate in lyrical beauty and sincerity of expression. The composer’s youthful promise was already being fulfilled in the exquisite “Die Nacht” (“The night”) and the entrancing delicacy of “Ständchen” (“Serenade”). A little more than a decade later came the even more popular “Morgen” (“Tomorrow”), a serenely beautiful vision of a world in which two lovers will always be together. “Wiegenlied” (“Lullaby”) offers heartstopping beauty, while also presenting one of the ultimate tests of legato control in all of Strauss.
The songs of Claude Debussy are the epitome of French mélodies in their absolute connection between music and text. Certainly they demand consummate vocal technique, but even the biggest vocal gestures never draw undue attention. The colors in Debussy songs emerge in the composer’s exquisitely sensitive response to the mood-setting of some of the greatest of all French poets, from Charles Baudelaire to Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé.
The six songs of Ariettes oubliées (1885-87) are central to Debussy’s eminence as a composer of French art song. Each makes an intoxicating impression, particularly “Il pleure dans mon coeur,” with its elegant Verlaine lyrics. As the singer describes tears falling on his heart, the constant procession of 16th notes in the pianist’s right hand project an image not of a thundering barrage of rain, but of a steady patter.
In his long life (he died in his midnineties) Gustave Charpentier composed only one work that has endured. The opera Louise (1900) premiered at Paris’s Opéra Comique and was memorable to Parisian audiences for vividly depicting the lives of the working class for perhaps the first time in French opera. The title character is a seamstress who falls in love with a bohemian poet, and leaves the suffocating atmosphere of her parents’ home to live with him on the outskirts of Paris. Act Three opens with “Depuis le jour,” an incomparably soaring expression of Louise’s happiness.
Next to Eugene Onegin, the most celebrated of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 11 operas is The Queen of Spades (1890), the riveting story of Gherman, whose obsession with gambling leads to catastrophe for him and Lisa, the young woman he loves. She opens the opera’s second scene singing with Polina for their friends. This number – actually meant to be accompanied by the piano (with intermittent flute intervention) when performed in context– exudes youthful sweetness as soprano and mezzo-soprano describe a peaceful evening in the country.
In Russian art-song literature, Tchaikovsky’s songs can be compared only to Rachmaninoff’s for their blend of sensitivity, intimacy, and lyrical fervor. One of the six romances of Opus 38, “Skazhi o chem v teni vetvej” (“Tell me, what in the shadows of branches”), is a passionate paean to the different ways the joys of love can be discovered – one can easily imagine Onegin’s lovestruck heroine Tatiana singing it. “To bylo ranneju vesnoj” (“It was in early spring,” from Opus 38), “Nochi bezumnye” (“Sleepless nights,” from Opus 60), and above all, “Den li carit” (“Whether day dawns,” from Opus 47), simply overwhelm the listener as the singer is seemingly consumed by the power of love.
The varied output of Frank Bridge, one of the boldest and most innovative British musicians of the early twentieth century, included more than 50 songs, many of which have long been cherished by grateful English-speaking recitalists. One of the most beloved of these songs is “Go not, happy day,” an enchanting Tennyson poem, enhanced by a deliciously rippling accompaniment and describing how delightful it will be when a maiden finally says “yes” to her beloved.
Of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 21 stage works we remember only one, the classic verismo tragedy Pagliacci. Nothing could be further removed from that work’s hair-raising drama than the high spirits of the song “Mattinata” (“Morning”), a song in which one seems to feel the sun of Italy. The accompaniment’s buoyancy matches the irrepressible energy of the singer, whose beloved is urged to open the door to hear the serenade.
Gabriel Fauré’s fame rests in large part on his Requiem and more than 120 songs. The latter are the essential cornerstone of modern French mélodies, along with those of Debussy. They demand enormous musicality and interpretive intelligence, as well as exceptional beauty of voice. The songs vary widely in terms of text and basic mood, with the poetry coming from virtually all the major 19th- and early 20th-century French poets. Fauré’s most famous song by some distance, “Après un rêve” (“After a dream”), one of the most achingly beautiful songs of longing written in any language, truly pulls at the heartstrings in the singer’s quietly anguished wish for the beloved in his dream to return.
For a master of symphonic music, Antonín Dvořák was surprisingly prolific in his writing for the voice. Of his ten operas, however, only one– the glorious Rusalka (1901) – is frequently heard internationally, and his more than 100 songs are not performed as often as they deserve. Perhaps most familiar in Dvořák’s song output are the seven Gypsy Songs (1880). He composed them especially for tenor Gustav Walter, a huge favorite at the Court Opera (now State Opera) in Vienna. The brief poems by Adolf Heyduk, covering the passion, sorrow, and sweetness of gypsy life, were set by Dvořák in German, but Heyduk eventually created a Czech translation invariably used today. The dignified, ineffably touching fourth song, “Když mne stará matka” (best known in English as “Songs my mother taught me”), is matched perhaps only by Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon” and the second-movement theme of the New World Symphony as the most universally beloved of all Dvořák melodies.
American composer Douglas Moore’s ten stage works included most notably The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956). It was introduced in Central City, Colorado, and in fact, all but one scene of the opera takes place in Colorado itself. The exception is the last scene of the opera’s first act – the wedding reception of the wealthy Denver businessman Horace Tabor and his beautiful bride, Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, in Washington, D.C. Tabor’s wealth rests on his ownership of a silver mine in Colorado. Guests at the wedding are discussing whether the silver standard should be repealed when Baby intervenes, defending silver in romantic and exceedingly touching terms.
Jacques Offenbach was famously referred to by Rossini as “the Mozart of the Champs-Élysées.” The sobriquet was appropriate, for Offenbach in his stage works shared with Mozart a special zest and pure joy in his musical spirit, as well as graceful style and a dazzling sense of humor. The topical references pervading his operettas entranced Parisian audiences, as did the glorious melodies abounding in Offenbach at his best. Vying with the cancan from Orphée aux enfers as the most familiar melody in any Offenbach work is the sensuously beautiful Barcarolle from Les contes d’Hoffmann (1881). When that opera’s “Venice act” opens with the poet Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse joining with the Venetian courtesan Giulietta to hail the beautiful night, one can easily envision the water undulating against the gondolas.
Roger Pines, dramaturg of Lyric Opera of Chicago, has appeared annually on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts’ “Opera Quiz” for the past 12 years and also contributes regularly to opera-related publications and recording companies internationally. He taught a seminar, “The Glory of Great Singing,” last spring at Chicago’s renowned Newberry Library.