Corrections or additions?

Elaine Strauss

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on February 11, 1998. All rights reserved.

The way I see it, there are three key aspects to the

career of baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who gives a recital at

McCarter

Theater, Tuesday, February 17, at 8 p.m. First of all, he has an

extraordinary

voice, warm and supple, yet capable of filling a space as large as

the Metropolitan Opera House. Artistically, that’s good news. Second,

he presents himself as a possible cult figure. His recent release

from Philips has a slipcase showing him with dreamy eyes and slightly

parted lips, his prematurely silver hair reaching to the neck of his

black turtleneck. The album is simply called "Dmitri," and

pop stars Madonna and Elvis come to mind. Hvorostovsky has been

compared

to Elvis, which is fine with him. Artistically that’s suspect, but

in a free world an artist has a right to earn his caviar as he wishes.

Third, Hvorostovsky grew up in Siberia, and finds his way repeatedly

and easily to Russian music. Artistically that’s authentic. Indeed,

his Russian-ness seeps into all the other aspects of his career.

Son of a physician mother and a chemical engineer father, Hvorostovsky

was born in 1962 in the Siberian metropolis of Krasnoyarsk, a

17th-century

fort grown large and modern. With almost a million people, Krasnoyarsk

is a port and rail center, as well as a center for hydroelectric

power.

Its factories produce farming and lumbering equipment, chemicals,

aluminum, cement, and textiles. There is gold in the region. Its

gaggle

of technical and mathematical institutes have their homesites on the

Web. And downtown is an opera house. But while Minneapolis has St.

Paul across the river, Krasnoyarsk has nothing much nearby. This is

a remote place where people may smoke or drink to keep their minds

off their isolation. Despite his interest in a vocal career,

Hvorostovsky

smoked. He has given it up.

Hvorostovsky has also given up living in Krasnoyarsk. He now resides

in London, with his wife, a former ballerina, and their twin toddlers.

Residing in Siberia can be temporary, but being Russian is permanent.

Once a Russian, always a Russian. Inevitably, Hvorostovsky champions

Russian music. He has performed and recorded a 12-song cycle,

"Russia

Cast Adrift," by contemporary composer, Georgii Viridov. His

discography

includes Russian folk music, Russian art songs, Russian opera, and

Russian liturgical music. He records exclusively for Philips Classics.

On the CD "Dmitri," a battery of Italian operatic selections

share the billing with Russian operatic and folk songs. Hvorostovsky

is as convincing in Italian as he is in Russian. The arias display

his vocal gifts and his stage presence. They range from the patter

of the "Largo al Factotum," in Rossini’s "Barber of

Seville,"

to the moving death scene of Rodrigo, in Verdi’s "Don Carlo,"

to Onegin’s declaration of love in Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene

Onegin."

Some of the sustained notes on the recording are a tribute to

Hvorostovsky’s

physical fitness. (He is accompanied on the album by four different

orchestras.) The three Russian folk songs at the fulcrum of the

recording

— one soulful, one lusty, one sad — remind the listener that

music grows from soil less pretentious than urban opera houses, and

that Hvorostovsky’s operatic roots are in Russian song.

Hvorostovsky learned his Italian from a retired engineer at the

Krasnoyarsk

Conservatory. A standard Hvorostovsky story tells of his singing Verdi

to a group of Krasnoyarsk’s senior citizens. They didn’t understand

the Italian, but they wept nonetheless. Not only is music a universal

language, so is emotion, even if it stems from an alien emotional

tradition. The Russian penchant for smoldering, melancholy passions

made the ebullient, explosive sensitivities of Italy directly

accessible.

Russian sensibilities in many matters have a characteristic flavor.

There is a special attachment to the motherland that draws exiles

like Solzhenytsin back to Russia. Dostoevsky’s novels exploring the

Russian soul show a capacity for introspection that is ethnically

unique. A particular mystic strain dominates Russian Orthodoxy and

finds its way even into secular activities. In Krasnoyarsk, a

mountaineering

accident, probably known to Hvorostovsky, provides the basis for a

mystic magnification of the Russian soul, along Dostoyevskyan lines.

About 10 kilometers outside of Krasnoyarsk stand a pair

of rock pillars several hundred feet high where the intrepid climb.

As a matter of pride, they refuse to use technical climbing gear.

Volodya Teplix, a noted rock climber, had the ill fortune to stand

on a piece of rock which snapped. He fell slowly to his death. A

photographer

climbing nearby had time to take five photos before Teplix hit the

ground. The plaque erected in his memory declared, "The rocks

didn’t take Volodya into their heart; Volodya took them into HIS

heart."

The Russian spirit mystically overcomes all obstacles.

An unattributed quotation on Hvorostovsky’s "Credo" CD

declares,

"I believe in the power of the Russian sacred music to transport

the spirit, to open our eyes to the mysteries of faith and to teach

us, as Dostoyevsky believed, that `beauty will save the world’"

The cover art features a pair of eyes that, life size, reach across

the entire space. If you stand the CD upright and walk past, the eyes

follow you. Whether you believe or not, a mystic power is at work

in the world, they seem to say.

The recording is in the style of Russian church music during the years

1850 to 1950. The traditional chants consisting of a single vocal

line have been brought up to date by three or four-part harmony that

the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir supplies to support soloist

Hvorostovsky.

The bulk of the 13 selections take less than six minutes each.

Enveloping the listener in sound, "Credo" lets outsiders into

the congregation. A community with common roots then performs its

rituals. This is no mere crowd of unrelated people. Elemental and

brooding, the pieces are heavy and dark, slow and ponderous. There

are no tripping hosannas in this tradition. This is emotional music

from the Russian heart. Because of its focus on a single genre of

music and a relatively small time range, "Credo" provides

an in-depth experience. In this it is unlike Hvorostovsky’s more

popular

"Dmitri," where snippets from many sources oscillate between

Italian and Russian opera. I prefer the tighter focus, with less

skittering

around.

Shortly before Christmas, the Metropolitan Opera

presented

a juxtaposition of Russian and Italian operas, paralleling the dual

ethnic material of Hvorostovsky’s "Dmitri" CD by scheduling

on successive nights Mussorgsky’s "Boris Godunov" and Verdi’s

"Don Carlo," a pair of powerful operas with remarkable

similarities.

Both portray major historical figures against a backdrop of public

spectacles. Both show political leaders confronting simultaneously

problems of state and problems in their private lives. Written within

a year of each other, in the 1860s, the operas embody the difference

between a Russian stolidness and an Italian tempestuousness.

Hvorostovsky has already appeared in "Don Carlo," and is

letting

his voice get ready for "Boris Godunov." At age 37, he

foresees

the need for his voice to grow into the dark demands of

"Boris,"

and he looks forward to the challenge. Forever Russian, he knows that

Russia has shaped his past and his present. He counts on Russia being

there, also, in his future.

— Elaine Strauss

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. $25. Tuesday, February 17, 8 p.m.


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