Easter Monday marks a highpoint in The Royal Opera's calendar, as an exciting revival of Verdi's Il trovatore brings together two favourite singers making their house role debuts – Roberto Alagna as Manrico and Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora – with a member of the original cast of the production, the great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
Verdi has always been a mainstay of Hvorostovsky's career, and with the Royal Opera alone he's appeared in La traviata, Un ballo in maschera, Don Carlo, Rigoletto and I masnadieri, as well as Il trovatore. Elsewhere, he's expanded his repertoire to include Simon Boccanegra, while his signature role has always been the title part in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.
His appearances in song recitals, such as that with Evgeny Kissin last autumn at the Barbican, are equally as legendary as his operatic appearances, while he's also expanded his repertoire to include Neapolitan arias. Russian popular music is a new fascination for him, with a brand new album recently in the bag, and he's keen to venture into new territories such as film, as well as adding Rubinstein's The Demon and further Verdi roles in Ernani, Macbeth and Otello to his profile. I caught up with him in the final stages of rehearsals for Trovatore to ask him about all this and more.
Hvorostovsky's role in the opera, the Conte di Luna, is something of an evildoer, bringing about his brother's death. But does he have a sympathetic side? 'Of course: he's in love,' says Hvorostovsky. 'That says it all. I think the motivation of being in love can drive you to extremes. In this production he's a military man, and love turns him evil easily, because he's been dealing with arms and wars.'
The roles that the baritone tends to do nowadays are either fathers, such as Rigoletto, Germont and Boccanegra, or lovers, such as Di Luna, Onegin and Renato. Does he prefer one to the other? 'No,' he assures me. 'Each role is fulfilling. Sometimes my character reflects it all, and you can always mix them up. With Rigoletto you're dealing with a big touch of lyricism and the father's love and dedication, so that makes him into a good character. So the Conte di Luna becomes totally obsessed with his love for Leonora, and his revenge and constant rivalry with his brother, Manrico, is also part of the love triangle. I haven't done the most totally evil roles yet: Iago is yet to come into my repertoire.
'Then there's Onegin, which has been a big part of my career: you can't really tell who the heck he is. Is he evil or good? Is a romantic lover? Who is he? Everything that's written on Pushkin's novel and Tchaikovsky's opera reflects him from every possible angle. So I try to make the role as multifaceted as possible: there's not a particular operatic stance you can stick with. So it's an amazing opportunity to be able to sing this character.
'I did Robert Carsen's production at the Met, which wasn't very new, but it was a high-profile revival with myself as Onegin and Renee Fleming as Tatyana. It was broadcast in High Definition across the globe and put on DVD. It was a very interesting, plain production that didn't have any distractions or disturbances on the stage, so you can have everything concentrated on the heroes of the opera. The opportunity to do the role opposite Renee Fleming made it even more exciting for me. That was my last experience of doing Onegin, and each new production brings some new revelation.'
I mention how immediate and realistic the intensity of the final scene of this performance seems on Decca's DVD of the Met's broadcast. How important is it for Hvorostovsky to make the drama realistic when performing opera?
'Well, we're talking about the modern theatre, because opera is part of that for me, and we have the chance to bring it closer to the audience with a more modern language onstage. We can break it out and approach a more sophisticated audience. Everyone says that opera is dying out, the "museum genre", it has no future. But I think it's not true; I think opera's one of the leading genres, not least because it actually combines many genres within itself.
'Modern opera singers don't even look like the singers of the recent past. I'm saying "we" because obviously I'm part of it, and I work very hard to bring opera closer to modern theatre. In every production, I try to do a lot of controversial things, and we move and try to interact and act in the same way as dramatic actors in the straight theatre. Plus, we have to take care of the singing, and no matter what kind of repertoire you sing, you have to bring the voice to the foreground, because that's what opera's all about.'
Has a new cast for the Trovatore made a difference to the way the opera is interpreted in the production?
'Absolutely. I'm lucky to be working with two other singers whom I admire very much. Sondra Radvanovsky, who's playing Leonora, has one of the rarest, most beautiful, unique voices I've heard; it reminds me of the singers of the past. It's so beautiful, and the vibrato she has is unique amongst American singers. The way she does it is so easy: Leonora is one of the most difficult lyric dramatic soprano roles, but she does it with such beauty, and with such an easy touch. I predict that it's going to be a huge success for her, as it was recently when we did ten performances of Trovatore at the Met together.
'And of course, Roberto Alagna is one of the greatest tenors currently working in the world today. He's got a wonderful physical ability – he looks great – and he sings it with beauty and mastery. This is star casting.'
Why has he made Verdi the centre of his career? 'It's both vocal and empathetic. Since I started studying, Verdi's music has stayed in my head, and I always wanted to be a Verdi baritone. I always knew that it was my forte. Even in the early stage of my career, when I couldn't afford to sing a lot of the complete Verdi operas, I sang a lot of his arias in concerts. I've been waiting and waiting until my voice has got into the right shape for it, until it's got the capacity and volume, and also until I could attain the technical ability for it. To finally have made the step towards the big dramatic Verdi roles has made me very happy, very satisfied with what I can do onstage. And my stage repertoire has turned into one of my main profiles, compared with what I did fifteen years ago at the beginning of my career.
'But still, it's not the only thing I do. I do a lot of concerts, and different repertoires and genres. Quite recently I've turned to pop music!'
I ask him to elaborate on this news. 'In November of this year, I'm going to do a concert of music by Igor Krutoi, a Russian composer who's written twenty-five original songs for me. It's going to be sung in Italian, French, Russian and English, and we're doing a tour of it. The first international appearance is at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and hopefully it will have many appearances in Europe and come to London.'
Of the big Verdi roles, Macbeth and Iago obviously stand out as challenges Hvorostovsky has yet to take on. Are they in the pipeline? 'I've just been talking to Elijah Moshinsky about it, in fact. I should have done Macbeth some time earlier. I did I masnadieri here at Covent Garden: it was written in the same year as Macbeth, and it reflects a bit of Iago and a bit of Macbetto. I still feel drawn away from jumping into this darkness and depression. I'm Russian, so nothing can surprise me about it!' he laughs. 'I've been waiting, but still, I think it's time for me to go to this role now. Certainly I'm going to do Iago very soon, and a third Verdian role: Don Carlo in Ernani. So these three are certainly going to happen in the near future.'
What about exploring new repertoire? 'There are no new directions in particular, but I'm looking at Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein. I have two concerts with Valery Gergiev in St Petersburg, and we're splitting it into two sections of operatic scenes: one with parts of Rubinstein's The Demon and one with Simon Boccanegra, which has been one of my favourite new roles recently. The Demon is something I'd like to do properly in the future. It's a very big role, a kind of Wagnerian influence in Russian music, so when people hear me sing the Demon arias, they think it's another step towards the Wagner roles for me, such as Wolfram. So maybe I'll think about those too!'
He confirms that he plans to return to Covent Garden in future seasons. 'I'm back for Rigoletto and Traviata, and I'm waiting for my chance to do Simone Boccanegra here. I know the beautiful Elijah Moshinsky production of the opera Covent Garden has had for many years, because I've done it in Houston and San Francisco, so I hope I'll be able to do a revival of it here too.'
Any new recordings? 'There's the pop music album, which has been recorded but the mixing hasn't been done yet. I've also done a video clip for one of the songs that I sing in French. It's going to be quite a breakout in terms of repertoire, and also in terms of reaching out to a new audience. I hope it's going to be as exciting for other people as it is to me.' Will he do any others? 'We'll see. I certainly have to do a musical, which would be another breakout. Of course, I could not to sing the same thing every night for a long period of time, because I would be deadly bored and I don't have the time to spare.
'But to do it a couple of times and to make a film or video is part of my future plans. I'm really pushing the musical, and I've sort of become the uncle of the project. The composer is taking the existing material, and also writing some new music for it, too. So we have a very productive relationship with Mr Krukoi, who's one of the most recognised pop composers in Russia. He's a genius melodist, who produces tunes that stick in your ear instantly. So to mix up the songs and make something out of it would be one idea, but I'm sure he has enough talent to write another twenty-four new ones if he had to. It would also prolong the life of the beautiful songs he's composed if we put them in this kind of project. To use the music for a script, a story, would be great, and I would love to bring some of my opera singer colleagues to participate in it.'
I ask whether the baritone's Russian background is an important influence on his life today. 'Of course. Almost my entire concert repertoire has been devoted to singing Russian repertoire. I have some French and German and Italian stuff too, of course, but I remain a specialist of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, and I'm working on a new programme now that combines bits of Liszt and Faure with Tchaikovsky and Taneyev. Mostly I remain the Russian recitalist.' But, I ask, is it close to his heart? 'Well, I normally don't do anything I don't like, so it is close to my heart, yes. You have to have a certain reason to perform a recital, so if you don't feel excited and in love with a programme, it's best not to do it.'
A couple of years ago, there was mention of Hvorostovsky making a movie version of Boris Godunov. 'Unfortunately, nothing's happened about that,' he says with evident regret. 'It's partly because of my availability, but now that there's such an economic crisis the project has frozen for a while. But it very much attracts me, the idea of doing Boris on film. We have to do it!'
But the idea of making films in general excites him. 'I recently spent two days and nights filming the music video I mentioned earlier. The first session was twenty-three hours long. That's the way they do it in Kiev, in the Ukraine, where we did it. But I had no complaints, actually. It was exciting to watch people working non-stop. They almost never took a break through the whole day; it was amazing. They're very professional people, and the results are phenomenal. The young film maker is only twenty-six years old, yet he's extremely experienced and well-known. He's full of great ideas.
'So for instance, one of the lyric songs I sang, was a typical French love song, full of 'toi et moi', stuff like that, but he turned it into the story of a girl, Rose, who kills the lovers who kiss her, and I become an executioner who falls in love with this girl, but luckily survive. It's weird, almost phantasmagorical, but it looks so beautiful, and it's very erotic. We had an extraordinary group of dancers, who were literally semi-naked during the two days and nights in this very cold studio outside of Kiev. I was also topless all the way through, and the girl who played the main role was also naked. We had a good time, but let's see how it's going to come out. People who hate pop music are probably going to turn their anger on me because they'll think I'm a traitor to them!' he laughs again.
Hvorostovsky has a young family, which is always a challenge for a major international singer with demands for his time on both sides of the Atlantic. 'But so far, we've coped,' he says. 'The love and understanding we have for each other saves us. My family very often travels with me. My son's turning six this summer, and his school is very understanding about letting him out to travel with me. London is right in the middle of the world, so I can always travel back and forwards, and I can always take my family with me on long-term engagements, so as long as we're happy and in love, it will be OK.'
Any ambitions? 'I don't want to become the president of any country or do politics. I just want to sing. I've been blessed with my profession: that's what I do best, and I'm totally obsessed with it. I have many other plans for my career – the filming, the new repertoires, the musical.'
Initially, Hvorostovsky wanted to be a doctor, rather than a singer. 'My mum was a doctor – she's retired now – and I loved watching what she did. But I didn't have any opportunity to do anything other than what I'm doing now, because I went to music school, and studying takes up so much of your time. I started when I was seven years old, so my whole life was taken up with studying piano and theory and singing. Besides, this was my main talent, so ultimately I didn't want to do anything else.'
His family was hugely musical, so perhaps it was inevitable that he would take this route. 'My parents are great amateur musicians. Nobody loves music more than people who do it just for fun, and my father is a phenomenal pianist. Because of his singing studies, I was able to become a singer very easily, since I listened to his singing from the moment I was born.'
Now a major player on the world stage, Hvorostovsky is particularly grateful for the opportunities he had in his early days. 'The competition system is very important, of course, and I was able to go through it with literally no stops. I won the first competition inside Russia, then moved on a level to Toulouse, then a year later I went to Cardiff. The Toulouse competition gave me a few contracts and prepared me for the next step; it was easier to win at Toulouse than it was at Cardiff. Cardiff was special: literally the next day, everything changed. My manager introduced himself, and proposed that we work together immediately after the first round. So the day after I won, I started to receive offers from all the major theatres, and went to do further auditions in London. That's the impact it had on me and my career.'
Was he ready for the pressure? 'I was about twenty-six years old, so I was probably a little immature, but some people start when they're nineteen and with a bit of help they can make big careers. I was ready. I learnt how to learn things, how to do important things, like new languages and roles, and this became part of my daily routine. I learnt never to be happy with myself, though that came from the Russian training of my parents! Even now, I have plenty of work in front of me. You have to keep growing and studying. To become better, you have to train every day, and your physical and vocal ability becomes part of your daily training.'
Finally, I ask the baritone about his legacy. 'I have my signature roles, for instance Onegin, which is one of the best in the world, and I don't think anyone can compete with it. But there are a lot of Verdian singers who can sing better than I do!' he laughs. 'So what I'm trying to achieve with my Verdi roles, and to become one of the greatest Verdi singers, requires a lot of work. But also, my variety of music and genres I do in my career. It gave me a huge advantage that I did so many concerts early on, when I couldn't do so much opera. I think this is what distinguishes me from my colleagues. And also, wait until I've done the movie: then I'll be finally remembered!'
Il trovatore opens at the Royal Opera House on 13 April 2009.
Photos: top picture, copyright Tavel Antonov
Review: Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Evgeny Kissin at the Barbican, 2008
Review: Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Eugene Onegin from the Met
Review: Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Heroes and Villains album
Review: Dmitri Hvorostovsky in La traviata at Covent Garden, 2008
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