Above: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Tuesday September 29th, 2015 - Having cancelled most of his Summer engagements to commence treatment following the diagnosis of a brain tumor, the great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky valiantly came to New York City to sing for us at The Metropolitan Opera. The necessity of returning to London to continue his treatment regimen meant that the baritone would only sing the first three of his scheduled Met performances as Count di Luna in IL TROVATORE, but to me it spoke highly of his dedication that he made the effort to come in for these high-profile performances which also feature the first Met Leonoras of Anna Netrebko.
At the season prima, on September 25th, the audience greeted Hvorostovsky's entrance with a show-stopping ovation. The evening ended with a tumult of cheers and applause as he took his bows, and the members of The Met orchestra flung flowers up onto the stage, signalling their affectionate regard for the great singer.
And a great singer he is...truly. Tonight - the second of the three performances in which he'll appear - Hvorostovsky was again given a prolonged round of applause at his entrance. To me, his voice sounded, amazingly, more beautiful than ever. "Il balen" was the vocal high-point of the evening: superbly phrased and deeply felt, sustaining the poetic musings of a character often described as "evil" but who is, essentially, a real romantic.
Hvorostovsky's Count di Luna in fact manages to engage our empathy when he is cruelly beaten by Manrico's men in the convent scene; Manrico slashes his rival's face, and Hvorostovsky's acting here was wonderfully committed. All evening, the baritone kept the character very much in the forefront of both the music and the drama, from with his snarling "Io fremo!" as he listens to Manrico serenading Leonora in Act I right to the end where - if my ears didn't deceive me - Dima chimed in on Azucena's final high B-flat with one of his own.
Dolora Zajick's Azucena was thrilling from start to finish; the esteemed mezzo-soprano flung her fiery high notes and cavernous chest tones into the house with resplendent authority, her monologue "Condotta ell'era in ceppi" a veritable whirlwind of emotion as she displayed an uncanny dynamic range from haunting near-whispers to thunderous outbursts. This evening she didn't take the high-C in "Perigliarti ancor languente" that had been one of her trademarks in this role, but instead swept onward like an force of nature. Her expressive singing of "Giorni poveri vivea..." was counter-balanced moments later with the sweeping anguish of "Deh! rallentate, o barbari!" which commenced on a lightning-bolt top note and plunged into vivid chest notes. In the opera's final scene, Zajick displayed marvelous control in "Ai nostri monti" and in the trio where she seems to be singing in her sleep, only to awaken to the horror of Manrico's execution. Her triumphant B-flat was a glorious cry of revenge achieved.
The Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee made a positive impression as Manrico, despite the fact that his voice is rather lighter than we are accustomed to in this music. In fact, Lee's entire repertoire seems geared to roles which call for more vocal heft than he seems capable of: I wonder if he might not be better employed - at least for now - as Alfredo, the Duke of Mantua, and Tamino.
But there's no going back, and Lee's impassioned commitment to both the music and the character of Manrico had the audience well engaged. Lee's slender figure and intense acting gave the rebel leader a romantic, swashbuckling appeal; and his mixture of unbridled vocal passion with moments of hushed piano reflectiveness kept the music aurally stimulating. Oddly, he sometimes reminded me of Franco Corelli - not in terms of the voice itself, but with the smouldering ardor of his delivery.
Lee sang a beautifully modulated, emotional "Ah si, ben mio" and - if I am not mistaken - took "Di quella pira" in C with an endlessly sustained final note which was ever-so-slightly below pitch. The audience took the tenor to heart, and Mr. Lee was very warmly applauded at the curtain calls.
Anna Netrebko seemed to be forcing her voice in some of Leonora's music; in pushing for a larger, darker sound, some of the inherent lyric beauty of her tone is drained away. Her over-leaning into the chest register was a detriment: this isn't Santuzza. There were many fine passages along the way, but also some errant pitch and some glare on the louder high notes (she skipped the D-flat at the end of the Act I trio). The audience, needless to say, adored her.
Stefan Kocan was a powerfully-sung and dramatically commanding Ferrando, with Maria Zifchak a big-voiced Inez and my friend Edward Albert in the brief role of A Gypsy. Marco Armiliato's conducting was 'good routine' - and better than that after the interval - and the orchestra played very well.
A program note explained that Ms. Netrebko's costumes had been specially created for her. Her breasts were amply on display in the opening scene's burgundy outfit, then at the convent she was all buttoned up, a prim and proper young 'widow' in black. She went in for a gypsy look for the scene prior to her (thwarted) marriage, with a nifty head-wrap.
For all the passing "ifs, ands, or buts", this was overall a pretty exciting night at the opera: there was involvement, passion, and some very impressive vocalism along the way.
Metropolitan Opera House
September 29th, 2015
Count Di Luna...........Dmitri Hvorostovsky