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VISHNEVSKAYA Celebrated as Musical Royalty

George Loomis

31 October 2006


MOSCOW – It was quite a week for Galina VISHNEVSKAYA. On Tuesday night, the eve of her 80th birthday, the famed soprano presented the winners of her newly established vocal competition. And on Wednesday the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall hosted a birthday party that was quintessentially Russian in its lavishness.

The gala was originally to have been at the Bolshoi Theater, but VISHNEVSKAYA reacted vehemently against the Bolshoi’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”, which premiered last month. In a letter to the Russian government daily

Rossiyskaya Gazeta she wrote, “I will not escape the shame of being a part of that public desecration of our sacred national treasure” and vowed not to set foot in the theater again.

In response, the Bolshoi filled the void left by the gala’s cancellation with still another performance of “Onegin”, with a second added performance the following night. Originally, “Onegin,” a production by the young Russian Dmitry Chernyakov, was not scheduled to be performed again until December.

Still, the spirit of the Bolshoi, where VISHNEVSKAYA debuted in 1952 and spent the glory years of her career, was very much in the air at the birthday gala. A replica of the Bolshoi’s tsar’s box dominated the rear of the stage. Also onstage was VISHNEVSKAYA herself, viewing the proceedings from a red-velvet gilded armchair positioned upon a platform so as to look suspiciously like a throne. (Dmitri Bertman from Moscow’s Helikon Opera was in charge of the evening’s visual dimension.) Two liveried footmen were in attendance, gathering the many floral bouquets presented to her and placing them on an ornate console table. A proclamation was read from President Vladimir Putin. Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, delivered his tribute in person. In an age when the Metropolitan Opera no longer recognizes farewell performances, the Russians are not afraid to idolize their cultural heroes.

Musically, the evening embraced more than opera. Violinist Maxim Vengerov, in peerless form, offered three bonbons, including a Brahms Hungarian Dance discreetly spiced with technical flourishes. From the Bolshoi Ballet Svetlana Zakharova danced to Saint-Saлns’s “The Swan,” astonishingly spending almost the whole piece on toe-tops, and a pas de deux from Glazunov’s “Raymonda” brought two other Bolshoi dancers, Maria Allash and Nikolai Tsiskaridze.

The Bolshoi was also represented by some fascinating footage of vintage appearances by VISHNEVSKAYA in “Madama Butterfly” – a tensely impassioned farewell to her child – plus Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” (the epochal 1959 production) and Shebalin’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Among the singers performing live, two came fresh from the VISHNEVSKAYA competition’s jury, both tenors. Dennis O’Neill contributed a searching account of the “Lamento di Federico” from Cilea’s “L’Arlesiana,” Badri Maisuradze a rafter-raising one of “Vesti la giuba” (“Pagliacci”). Mezzo-soprano Larissa Diadkova (with Maisuradze) was strong in Amneris’ fourth-act scene from “Aida,” although two problematic B-flats apart marred her effort. Vladimir Chernov, in outgoing form, offered a well-lubricated performance of “Largo al factotum” (“Il barbiere di Siviglia”). Seiji Ozawa made a surprise appearance for the Polonaise from “Eugene Onegin,” otherwise Bolshoi conductor Pavel Sorokin presided over the Evgeny Svetlanov Orchestra. The evening culminated with “The Drinking Song” from “La Traviata” in which O’Neill and Maisuradze shared tenorial duties and 80 sopranos – one for each birthday candle – sang Violetta’s lines.

VISHNEVSKAYA’s husband Mstislav Rostropovich, who recently canceled appearances in Washington with the National Symphony but participated in the vocal competition as a juror, was not in attendance at the gala. It was said that he was flown to Paris earlier in the day for medical treatment.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union – the couple was forced to leave Russia in 1974 – VISHNEVSKAYA has contributed to Russia’s musical life primarily through the Galina VISHNEVSKAYA Center for Opera, a nurturing ground for young singers that opened in 2002. The new Galina VISHNEVSKAYA Competition of Operatic Artists is a logical outgrowth of the Center’s activities.

The awards were presented on Tuesday at the Moscow International House of Music, with 27-year-old Russian bass Alexei Tikhomirov from Kazan taking first prize, and Moscow tenor Alexei Kudrya and St. Petersburg soprano Olesya Petrova taking second. A concert by the seven prize winners followed the ceremony.

VISHNEVSKAYA hopes to establish a niche for the competition by featuring young singers who have already embarked on careers, hence the term “operatic artists” in the title. Tikhomirov, for example, currently in his final year at the Kazan Conservatory, is already on the roster of Moscow’s Helikon Opera and in that capacity was one of four Borises to appear in the initial run of the Helikon’s recent new production of “Boris Godunov.”

His performances of King Philip’s “Ella giammai m’amт” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and Mйphistophйlиs’s “Le veau d’or” from Gounod’s “Faust” revealed a voice of handsome richness and ample range but not the presence one might have hoped for, although the problematic acoustics of the four-year-old House of Music may share some of the blame. Reports of his Helikon Boris suggest a singer of greater promise than his performance here might have indicated.

The audience favorite was Kudrya, whose tenor is in the lyrical mold of such past Russians as Ivan Kozlovsky and Sergei Lemeshev but with a welcome element of vitality. His singing of Lensky’s aria from “Eugene Onegin” was fluent and expressive if a touch restrained, and he performed the unusual feat of accompanying his stylish vocal account of “Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton,” from “Die Zauberflte,” on the flute, which didn’t hurt his rapport with the audience.

I thought mezzo Anna Viktorova, a singer from Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theater and one of four third-prize winners, singing arias by Mussorgsky and Saint-Saлns, outclassed second-prize winner Petrova, whose mezzo has a liquid richness but was heard to limited effect in a tepid account of the Principessa’s aria from Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur.”

In the initial round, competitors submitted video recordings of their performances, from which 35 were invited to Moscow for the second round. Though billed as an international competition, the vast majority came from Russia or other parts of the former Soviet Block, and all seven winners were Russian. I heard roughly half of the Second Round (but not the finals) and was surprised that Dinara Alieva, a lyrico-spinto soprano from Azerbaijan with a warm, full sound, didn’t place among the winners.

Next on the Russian circuit of vocal competitions is the Mariinsky Theater’s Rimsky-Korsakov Competition, which gets underway at the end of November.