Wednesday, January 05, 2011


The past year brought some impressive triumphs of star power from the Met stage (none greater than Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel in Tosca) and pit (the arrival of French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Carmen and Don Carlo is, I think, more momentous than Fabio Luisi's Principal Guest Conductor appointment), but the vocal highlight may have been an event on a different stage altogether. I didn't finish blogging it at the time, so let me elaborate now.

It was a National Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall on April 1, but no one was there to see DC's "other" orchestra, even conducted by Marco Armiliato. Instead, it was the pairing of two singers who have in recent years often appeared together: Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who will return to the triumphant David McVicar Trovatore this spring.

The frequent pairing of soprano and baritone is no coincidence, for the two simply complement each other in both voice and temperament. Radvanovsky's instrument is disconcertingly like air: the sound rings towards you from everywhere, as spacious as the house itself, and whether whisper or roar there's little sense of personal strain. (The emotional channel is her vibrato, which again defies the expectations of some listeners.) Hvorostovsky's sound, meanwhile, comes in a single dark piece from his person, and when he drives it full blast it can seem to overpower its origin. But I'm back to appreciating this as just his way.

Hvorostovsky's mastery is, in any case, not of sonic force but personal, and the spell he cast on this occasion was perhaps the strongest I've witnessed from him. (So much so that I left wondering if he wasn't, in the right context, the greatest singer in the world -- though I also thought that later that month about Terfel.) Sharing the stage with the amazing American soprano seemed to inspire not direct competition in vocal climax and ease but the desire to excel as much in his mastery -- communicative intensity -- as his partner was in hers.

But as she pushed him also to charged pure vocalism of his own, Hvorostovsky brought out more dramatic and personal intensity than Radvanovsky is accustomed to show in his absence. It's not that she lacks these qualities, but they are not instinctual -- so engagement with a partner like Hvorostovsky (and a director like McVicar) makes her actually more interesting in herself.

Radvanovsky also, mind you, showed a grander and more luxuriant vocalism than even her usual, including barrages of well-integrated but gloriously long-held high notes that are sadly absent from the all-too-tasteful (and studioish) recordings these two have done of this material.

About the only downside was the orchestra, which acquitted itself quite well in tutti portions (and credit to Armiliato here) but was unable to provide the distinguished solo accompaniments one would have gotten at the Met in, e.g., the Ballo scene.
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As well as the pair did in the concluding Onegin finale, it was Verdi that best showed their complementary talents, and Verdi that dominated the evening. We'll see the matchup again soon enough when the Trovatore production premiere cast reunites under Levine's baton this spring.

But Radvanovsky's encore gave a taste of next week's house role debut: singing Tosca's "Vissi d'arte", she showed the impressive-but-soft character (and, of course, Puccinian vocal ease) that should make for a near-ideal run in the part. I'd be surprised if this Tosca were the highlight of 2011, but it should certainly be better sold than it is.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.