Dmitri Hvorostovsky 1962-2017

November 23, 2017
By George Grella

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Dmitri Hvorostovsky, one of the great dramatic baritones of his generation, died Wednesday. He was 55 years old and succumbed, as confirmed by his management agency Askonas Holt, to the brain cancer that had been diagnosed in 2015.

That cut short a career in which he excelled in art songs and operatic roles of heightened and even self-lacerating expression-Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, Don Giovanni, Eugene Onegin, and, playing against his Byronic sex appeal, Rigoletto.

Born and raised in Siberia, Russian language songs were of course a natural for him. Even more Russian was an upbringing that seemed a stereotype, or something out of melodrama.

Raised mostly by his grandparents, Hvorostovsky had evening and weekend music schooling as a boy. But as a teenager, in something close to West Side Story, he fought in the street with gangs and began a heavy vodka habit. But his dedication to music remained, and his career was a testament to his training—his superior breath control made for his long, elegant, and scintillating phrases.

He came of age as a singer in tandem with the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the mid-late 1980s. There were greater international opportunities for Soviet artists, and Hvorostovsky made his name by winning the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, besting Bryn Terfel.

He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1995, singing Yeletsky in The Queen of Spades. His artistry was accessorized by his striking white hair, leonine and sophisticated at the same time and perfect for complex heroic roles like Onegin and Simon Boccanegra.

Between his debut and the beginning of the 21st century, he was a drunk, “a noisy, troublesome drunk,” as he told the New Yorker. His career seemed to be running, or staggering, in place. But he put the bottle behind him to start 2001, and for the last 16 years was one of the leading performing singers, not only on the opera stage but in solo recitals.

Hvorostovsky live was vibrantly charismatic and emotionally warm, commanding both attention and affection. His voice was beautifully balanced between dark coloration, a lighter lyricism—supported by his ability to sing long phrases in one seemingly endless breath—and the feeling that he was wrestling with, and overcoming, complex and difficult emotions.

His stage appearances in the last two years were understandably sporadic and also powerful. He had to initially cancel Met appearances in the fall of 2015 in Il Trovatore, but managed to perform for three dates during respites from his cancer treatments. Audiences were deeply emotional, and his performances were critically lauded.

He was able to present a Carnegie Hall recital in winter, 2016, and made a surprise cameo at the Met’s concert that May celebrating its 50 years in Lincoln Center. That was his final appearance in New York.


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