Hvorostovsky’s artistry casts a spell at Lyric Opera recital

February 29, 2016
By Wynne Delacoma
Dmitri Hvorostovsky performed a recital Friday night at the Civic Opera House.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky performed a recital Friday night at the Civic Opera House.

The news couldn’t have been better for the opera lovers who crowded into the Civic Opera House Friday night for a vocal recital by Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

After only a few minutes, it was clear that the Siberian baritone, whose treatment for a brain tumor has caused him to cancel many performances since June, has lost none of his charisma or commanding vocal powers. Looking trim and sporting his signature mane of flowing white hair, he offered a full two hours of soulful songs by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss plus three encores that left his audience clamoring for more.

Hvorostovsky, 53, is easing back into performing with recitals and concerts before tackling two fully-staged operas this spring at the Vienna State Opera: Verdi’s A Masked Ball in April and Simon Boccanegra in May. On one level, vocal recitals are a logical choice for a star returning to the spotlight. They’re relatively short, uncomplicated affairs compared with singing a leading role amid grand opera’s complex mechanism of sets, costumes, stage directions and daunting length.

There is nothing safe, however, about a solo vocal recital, especially for a singer of Hvorostovsky’s passionate intensity. During each of his twenty songs every eye and ear in the house was directed at Hvorostovsky. Using only his voice and body language, he was responsible for making us feel the pain of Tchaikovsky’s despairing lover in The Nightingale and the presence of boundless nature in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The wave breaks into spray.

The set of Lyric’s currently running production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette-the looming façade of a darkly formal Venetian palazzo–provided an evocative backdrop. But the evening’s success rode on Hvorostovsky’s performance, and he was more than equal to the task.

His baritone has always been agile, its stern depths shot through with hints of lighter colors. There was a grainy texture to his first two Glinka songs, the meditative To Molly and How sweet it is to be with you. That texture perfectly suited How sweet, adding a sense of conversational ease and wonder to the song of a young man astounded to find himself lucky in love.

As usual when Russian musicians come to Chicago, Russian speakers filled the audience, and they responded especially to the recital’s four Tchaikovsky songs. In the composer’s Amid the din of the ball, Hvorostovsky’s long-lined melodies floated like shifting smoke over the piano’s waltz-like accompaniment.

Among the five Strauss selections, Morgen unfolded like a benediction, its final, slow interplay between singer and pianist melting away into ineffable sadness. Pianist Ivari Ilja was a superb supporting player, providing a palette of dark brooding in Glinka’s Doubt along with hushed lyricism in Strauss’s Befreit (Released).

Though most of the songs were somber, Hvorostovsky was clearly thrilled to be onstage. At the concert’s end, he grinned at the ecstatic audience, and still full of energy, strode back onstage two deliciously over-the-top Neapolitan songs: Core ‘ingrato and Passione.

The final encore, a Russian folk song titled Farewell, joy offered a much more serious, indelible moment. Leaning forward, arms outstretched, singing a cappella, Hvorostovsky was a man transfixed, as if issuing an incantation to an invisible yet deeply felt spirit world.

It’s been eight years since Hvorostovsky sang with Lyric Opera of Chicago. Let’s hope this concert is a signal that drought may be over.


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