Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The White Russian

Rowr!  The baritone as Siberian tiger.
Some guys just have it, and some guys just don't. And baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky has it in spades, and knows it. Not only is the Siberian singer blessed (by common acclaim) with one of the great voices of the age, he also boasts looks to die for. At six-feet-something, with a bod that's been dubbed "pec-tacular," and a visage that seems, beneath a Farrah-meets-the-Matterhorn 'do, to be etched with seductively bored contempt (at left), Horostovsky comes off as a kind of sexual snow-god, a vocal frost giant endowed with a set of pipes that can - well, make the earth move, if you know what I mean.

And the earth did indeed move (judging from the orgasmic cries from the crowd) during his Celebrity Series concert last Sunday at Symphony Hall - even if Hvorostovsky didn't really give his fans what they'd come for until the very end of the concert (and then only once!).  The throng at Symphony was largely a Russian one, and the Russian classical crowd, as they say, knows what it wants and isn't afraid to ask for it.  Thus several patrons attempted to wrangle better seats than the ones they'd paid for, and a little old lady behind me kept sipping vodka from a thermos, while muttering softly in something that sounded Cyrillic.  People felt free to shout the name of the opera, or aria, they'd come to hear, and you weren't surprised when, during the encores, middle-aged matrons threw bouquets of roses onto the stage.  (You were just glad they weren't panties.)

Not that I don't sympathize!  Dmitri's um, instrument made me a little weak in the knees myself.  And there's nothing like his "I know you love me but are you really worthy?" attitude to send a classical music fan into a tizzy.

And then, in all seriousness, there's the voice, which is indeed everything it's cracked up to be (and maybe then some). Hvorostovsky's range is startling, stretching from the depths of a near-bass well into tenor territory, and what's more, the voice doesn't thin out as it rises; if anything, it gets richer. When Dmitri starts to climb the scale, you feel as if you're watching a shaft of bronze lift into blinding sunlight.  And his power and breath control are legendary - he summons crashing waves of sound, or sustains a note into the softest mist, seemingly at will.

But alas, interpretively, he's a bit heavy-handed - as you might have guessed from his glittering, Liszt-in-Vegas costuming.  Dmitri seemed to think that art-song (which is what he was singing for the most part) is the same thing as aria (which is what the crowd had come to hear); thus, though his phrasing was never inelegant, he tended to turn most everything he sang into a power-ballad.  His opening set, of delicate Fauré songs, was therefore largely a misfire - and his Siberian French was just weird (reading along, I sometimes asked myself "Is that what he just sang?").  When Dmitri turned to his mother tongue, however, and the largely-forgotten songs of Sergei Taneyev (a gadfly pianist of Tchaikovsky's set), things improved immensely.  There's also a certain chill to Hvorostovsky's intonation that seemed to match this Russian's sensibility well, and judging from such haunting numbers as "The People are Asleep," "Winter Journey," and "Stalactites," Taneyev may be overdue for re-appraisal.

Next came Liszt - in Italian, from Petrarch's sonnets - which came off much better than I expected (the pieces are somehow a bit operatic), particularly the anguishedly soaring "I find no peace."  (Heroic self-pity is, I think, one of Dmitri's specialties.)  The baritone returned to Russian for his last set, Tchaikovsky's six brief "Romances" - here perhaps a certain lyricism was missing, but the baritone made up for it with the sheer authority of his heartbreak, particularly in the closing "I am alone again, as before" (this was the one that trailed so thrillingly off into the mist).

In his encores, Hvorostovsky finally gave the crowd what they'd been crying for - an honest-to-God aria, Iago's "Credo" from Verdi's Otello.  And it was pretty spectacular - Dmitri's voice doesn't have the ripeness we've come to associate with Verdi, but he's got the size and power for this composer, and has been making a specialty of him of late, and it showed.  The crowd went wild, but  Hvorostovsky could be cajoled into just one more selection, Rachmaninoff's gorgeous love song "In the silence of the night"; I wasn't sure if its passion was meant for us or for himself, but in the end does it really matter if Dmitri loves Dmitri as much as we do?


  1. Late to the party here, but I saw Hvorostovsky the last time he came to town via the Celebrity Series and I wish I could have gone this time but other commitments kept me from being there. I'll be seeing him in Il Trovatore in April at the Met though. I do think that besides his fabulous voice Hvorostovsky is interesting as a crossover artist- that rare performer who seems to appeal to both the classical crowd and those more interested in contemporary music. He's practically a folk hero over in Russia, and when is the last time that happened with a singer like that here in the states? Must be the hair!