On 1 April, an almost completely sold-out house at Carnegie Hall in New York was treated to a rare event: a concert of opera arias and duets performed by two accomplished singers and accompanied by full orchestra. Why is the concert format increasingly rare? I don't know the answer, though I'm guessing it must have to do with expense. In the current economic climate, it seems like everything boils down to cost, but surely the concert promoters more than recouped their investment on this occasion. Singers who stray from the opera stage will often dabble in song recitals – a worthy pursuit, to be sure. But concerts of operatic arias can be great fun as well, and it's a shame we don't get to see our favorite singers in the concert setting more often. Freed from the constraints of blocking and costumes, the concert stage brings singers and their audience into closer proximity, and a satisfying breadth of repertoire can be sampled as well.
Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky are well matched as performers. They both offer lush, almost decadent vocal glamour, emotional commitment to the music, and larger-than-life stage presence. Their appearance in New York was the final stop on a four-concert tour that began in Toronto, and stopped in Montreal and Washington, DC en route to Carnegie Hall. Sadly, the orchestra touring with them, the National Philharmonic, sounded like a semi-professional 'pick-up' group. Throughout the evening, there were loads of wrong notes and ill-tuned playing, especially from the strings (the cellos in particular). Conductor Marco Armiliato, who has become a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera, had a challenging job trying to corral the orchestral players into producing vaguely adequate accompaniments, while attempting to cue the singers and accommodate their interpretive liberties. He probably worked the hardest of anyone on the stage and received a well-deserved ovation at the end of the evening.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky first appeared at Carnegie Hall over twenty years ago, and he's still in amazingly solid vocal shape. His singing throughout the evening exhibited lustrous tonal beauty, interpretive flair, and above all, remarkable breath-control. To a degree, his breathing was the most dominant feature of his performance, and the audience sat in amazement while he spun out phrase after phrase of astonishing length and with nearly flawless vocal control. In a concert setting, it was easy to forgive the fact that Hvorostovsky seemed to revel in his own vocal gorgeousness, maximizing the luster of his sound by keeping the voice as far back in the throat as possible most of the time and submerging the texts in a thick tonal haze.
He warmed up by opening with a suave, but lackluster account of 'Resta immobile' from Rossini's Guillaumo Tell. He then moved on to three selections by Verdi, including the arias 'Gran' Dio! … Oh de' verd'anni miei' and 'Eri tu' from Ernani and Un ballo in maschera, respectively, and the long duet 'Favella il Doge' from Simon Boccanegra. With the current dearth of true 'Verdi baritones' on the international opera scene, Hvorostovsky is one among several lyric baritones who have stepped into the void and done his best to inhabit these great roles with less than optimum vocal resources. Like his contemporaries Simon Keenlyside and Thomas Hampson, Hvorostovsky manages Verdi roles by offering intelligence, solid musicality, and vivid vocal coloring despite a natural vocal amplitude that remains a shade on the small side. His solo scenes gave the audience an opportunity to enjoy the unique, Slavic darkness of his voice, but it was obvious that his entire technical approach hinged on maximizing the breadth and volume of his tone. While it was a pleasure to hear such robust, self-assured vocalism, most of his words were unintelligible and thus his characterizations were limited. Still, his sheer emotional connection to Verdi's music was impressive to hear. It was only in music with Russian texts – the final scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and an immensely moving folksong offered as an encore – that the full measure of Hvorostovsky's gifts as a communicator became evident. Released from the demand for Verdian heft, his diction improved and he truly imbued his characters with life and vivid detail.
Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has been building her career for years, but has never reached the heights of international stardom reserved for the most elite among singers. I'm guessing that's all about to change, based on the truly spectacular vocalism she offered in this concert. In the past, I have had strong reservations about her singing due to a persistent tendency to sing flat through the middle voice and a more general sloppiness with the finer details of phrasing. However, aside from a few fleeting moments of uncertain pitch, there was very little to criticize on this occasion. In fact, her performances exuded rare technical security and interpretive ease.
The first thing you notice about Radvanovsky's voice is its size: it's a huge sound, and seems to be produced with absolute freedom throughout a very wide range. From a sonic standpoint, she easily overwhelmed Hvorostovsky's more lyric voice when singing at top volume. There were phrases within duets when the baritone's voice disappeared entirely beneath the waves of sound Radvanovsky produced. Still, despite its amplitude, Radvanovsky was able to scale back her sound at will, and demonstrated some truly remarkable diminuendi at the ends of phrases combined with superb breath control. Her opening aria, 'Ernani, Ernani involami…' drew admiring applause from the hushed audience as she ascended to high C's with ease and handily dispatched the roulades of the ensuing cabaletta.
In my opinion, her voice was too heavy for Rusalka's 'Song to the Moon', the delicate sonorities of which were weighed down by Radvanovsky's breadth of sound and slightly unidiomatic phrasing. Her Verdi selections on the other hand, were thrilling; she is a true 'Verdi soprano', meeting all the requirements for energy, volume, agility, and dynamic shading. The only thing missing is an Italian 'tinta' in the coloring of her voice, which sounds much more Slavic than Mediterranean. Still, her 'Morro, ma prima in grazia' was just about as perfect as one could ask for. Best of all was her encore – 'Vissi d'arte' from Puccini's Tosca, a role in which she is set to debut in Denver very soon. Her sculpting of phrases and breath control left the audience gasping in disbelief and barely able to contain their appreciation until the music ended.
It was clear that the audience didn't want the evening to end, but after several 'curtain calls' and the aforementioned encores, the duo exited the stage for the final time. Luckily for admirers, both singers have recorded collections of Verdi arias on the Delos label. Hvorostovsky's disc has been available for quite some time, and Radvanovsky's will be released in the US by the end of April. Additionally, they have recorded a disc of Verdi duets (taped live in Russia) that will also be released later this year. Keep an eye out for Radvanovsky's solo disc: it's likely to be required listening for anyone who loves great Verdi singing.
Photo Credits: Tavel Antonov; Cory Weaver