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March 30, 2010

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sondra Radvanovsky sing up a storm for WPAS

It's hard to keep up the lament about the dearth of great, or even just interesting, opera singers today when you encounter American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who teamed up for a concert Monday presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center. (Hvorostovsky dedicated the evening to the memory of the victims of Monday's terrorist attack in Moscow.)

The two artists have two of the most distinctive voices to be heard in our time, and the musical/dramatic instincts to back those voices up. By any era's standards, these are substantial singers, and that's how they sounded in a hefty program backed by the National Philharmonic and conducted by Metropolitan Opera regular Marco Armiliato.

You can carp about the limited tonal power of Hvorostovsky, if you like. He has never had the biggest sound around, and he has to push hard to reach his maximum volume. But, 21 years after his career-launching win at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, his tone remains nearly as smooth and sensual as the velvet tux he wore on Monday.

Radvanovsky has been a major buzz-generator for some time now, and no wonder. The soprano's voice might not be conventionally beautiful in terms of tonal cream, but, man, is it alive with color gradations and expressive nuances, from the burgundy low register to an often gleaming top. You just can't take your ears off of her. And the soprano seems to live each line she sings; there is no skating through text or focusing on effect. Her every note carries expressive weight.

The two singers produced plenty of theatrical chemistry to match their vocal intensity in excerpts from

"Simon Boccanegra" and "Un Ballo in Maschera." In the Renato/Amelia scene from the latter, Radvanovsky fell to her knees to sing the plaintive "Morro, ma prima in grazia" and tapped deeply into the music's poignancy. The baritone encountered a slight crack in "Eri tu," but recovered quickly; the "O dolcezze perdute" lines in the aria were phrased exquisitely.

An aria from "William Tell" received a smooth performance from Hvorostovsky. His colleague offered an involving "Song of the Moon" from "Rusalka." The final scene from "Eugene Onegin" found both singers in dynamic, involving form -- the whole opera seemed to be conjured up onstage in those few minutes.

Throughout the evening, Armiliato provided supple support on the podium. The orchestra began in decidedly uneven form (several of the solo efforts were particularly rough), but, after intermission, it sounded almost like a new ensemble, tighter in articulation, warmer in tone, more responsive in phrasing.

All in all, a classy night for WPAS, which has announced a most attractive lineup for the 2010-11 season.

(You didn't hear this from me, but the last I checked, there was a brief, unauthorized clip of Monday's "Onegin" performance posted on YouTube by someone sitting pretty close to the stage. If that gets taken down, you'll find samples of the two artists in a 2008 Moscow concert that covered some of the same repertoire as the DC program -- a program, by the way, that will be presented at Carnegie Hall on Thursday.)


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:44 AM | | Comments (6)


I thought "Oy ty Nochenka" ( Dmitri's encore) was simply amazing. For me it definitely was THE gem of the evening.
I am so happy that some artists still take music seriously and sing their hearts out!

"You can carp about the limited tonal power of Hvorostovsky, if you like." - Sorry, Tim, but I don't find it carping when a singer with "Dmitri's" limited vocal size and tonal palette tries to sing Verdi baritone roles. I was not at the concert, but I did hear DH try to sing Renato at the Met and it was a travesty. It is a superior voice, superb in the song repertoire, terrific in a role like Onegin where the lack of broad vocal colors contributes to the portrayal of a cold-heart, self-involved cad. But please don't call it carping when I expect that the minimal requirements of Verdi singing be met when one sings Verdi. And, in virtually every definition of "Verdi Baritone" I have ever read it starts with something like "A voice of great power and color". DH in Verdi is like watching a skilled petit-point practitioner make a tapestry. I've no doubt his Tell aria and Russian encore where things of great beauty, sensitivity and artistry.

I think Radvanovsky is among the better sopranos around right now - she has a great feel for a Verdi line and is expressive. But to say: "By any era's standards, these are substantial singers" seems stretching it a bit to me. Let us take the era of 1955 to 1965 and contemplate the sopranos who I think she would have rated behind (for at least part of that period - some of these did decline starting in the 1960's, and granted not all shared her repertoire): Milanov, Rysanek, Callas, Tebaldi, Stella, Cerquetti, Curtis-Verna, Amara, Arroyo, L. Price, Albanese, Kirsten, Gencer, Olivero, Nilsson, Steber, Guden, Stratas, Peters, Grummer, Della Casa, Schwarzkopf, Moffo, Vishneyskaya, Tucci, Farrell, De los Angeles, Sutherland, Varnay, Modl, Jurinac, etc.

But, chacun a son gout!

Son gout, indeed. Believe me, I know all too well how badly singers today stack up to those of yesteryear, but I do not believe we live in a totally worthless time. I suppose we could close all the opera houses and concert halls until somebody truly Verdian, on a 1955-65 level, comes along again (let's not even mention the absence of Wagernian voices), but I don't want to go without live music-making. And I just don't think our age is so deprived, so pathetic when there are voices that are as interesting as these two, singers with style and presence. TIM

Our age is hardly deprived of "great" voices -- the difference lies in teaching and taste. I'll take singers with "style and presence" over the mega-blasters of yesteryear any day. (The era of truly thunderous projection -- while maintaining beautiful tone -- is clearly past. And to think of 1955-65 as a "Golden Era" is a case of donning the rose-coloured spectacles. You probably have to go further back in time to really shine, and even then the "legends" are _probably_ a bit overrated. ;^)

From that sopranos list, about 50% of the names make me cringe... Some overstayed their welcome, though surely beautiful in their prime, while a select few were always brittle and "warbly." My favourites, on their best days, would have been Callas, Sutherland, and Varnay. Modl had some very good moments, but Schwarzkopf bores me to tears, and I find Tebaldi to be too one-dimensional (if not ugly -- yeah, I lean toward ugly). My definition of perfection: Montserrat Caballé. A few clones of her, perhaps with a little extra heft, would do the world some good.

Nice straw men, Tim. But I didn't suggest closing all the opera houses, nor did I suggest we live in a totally worthless times. I objected to your statement that "By any era's standards, these are substantial singers" and gave you one example of an era during which SR would have been an also-ran (in my opinion of course). If you love bel canto, Rossini, Handel or Gluck THESE are golden years. For Verdi, which DH and SR made a substantial part of their program, it is an extremely dry period and putting up with what passes for Verdi singing nowadays is the price we pay to continue to hear his masterpieces. That doesn't mean these two would have been important performers in this repertoire "by any era's standards".

Mr. Halfen, I did not call 1955-1965 a "golden age" - it was simply one era I cited where SR would not have been considered a "substantial perfomer", in my opinion.

Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I have a magnificent 1939 Meistersinger to return to - my Ballo with Leontyne Price, Carlo Bergonzi, Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters and Mignon Dunn is at home. I'm sorry, Mr. Halfen, if you think those were artists without style and presence abd simply "megablasters".

Having just seen 'Master Class' last night, I guess I'll just please for mercy and chalk up my apparently grossly overtstated review to the philosophy expressed by the Callas character in that great play: 'Never miss a chance to theatricalize.' TIM

You know what's wrong with opera today? Audience members like "Mike." I sure hope he's not sitting next to me groaning all night at anything. The golden age of singing shifts depending on one's age. Today the older generations thinks opera died circa 1967. Back in 1967 the older generation listened to Nilsson and wished they were listening to Frida Leider instead. So on and so forth. I know one older gentleman who heard Jussi Bjorling at the Met. Well, he says he was there in the house when Bjorling sang, but it was hard to tell how he sounded because the voice was inaudible past the 12th row. But who remembers that anymore!

There are a handful of singers of the past I wish I'd heard live. The rest I don't waste my time sobbing over and enjoy what today's world has to offer, which is not insignificant.

i agree with Raisa, it was awesome and can't wait to hear again!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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