LOUISE T. GUINTHER salutes the distinguished achievement of the OPERA NEWS Awards winner.
Photographed by Beatriz Schiller in the Metropolitan Opera production of Eugene Onegin, 2007
© Beatriz Schiller 2012
Charisma is a quality most easily appreciated up close; it takes a special degree of magnetism to project it across the footlights and all the way to the back of a 3,000-plus-seat opera house. Yet that is what Dmitri Hvorostovsky has done, consistently and unstintingly, over the whole course of his blue-chip career. Hvorostovsky's charisma is the kind that both attracts his legions of fans and seems to elevate him to a realm of the firmament just beyond their reach. He has the marketing savvy to make the most of the virility that so ideally complements his alluring voice but also the cool head to retain a measure of distance from the frenzied adulation it engenders.
The baritone's trademark silver mane, dark, intense gaze and broad-shouldered physique have sex-appeal written all over them, but it is a certain unstudied swagger in his gait, an air of innate dignity, authority and pride, that completes the package, just as his musical instincts and elegant sense of line raise his already impressive raw vocal material to another plane. A supremely confident artist, he prides himself on the technical mastery that gives rise to his powerful legato and legendary breath control. In his much-heralded Met debut, as Yeletsky in a 1995 Queen of Spades, Hvorostovsky had the audience holding its collective breath almost as long as the baritone himself in astonished admiration of the long, sensuous line he shaped from Tchaikovsky's passionate melody.
It was Hvorostovsky's 1989 win in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, with a flawless rendition of Rodrigo's "Per me giunto," from Don Carlo, that introduced opera-lovers across the globe to his robust sound, seamless legato and handsome, brooding presence. The Cardiff victory brought him, in quick succession, a recording contract with Philips and debuts at Alice Tully and Carnegie Halls. By the time he took that first Met bow, he was the darling of both press and public and had already been rapturously received at an array of top-flight houses that included Venice's Teatro La Fenice, Chicago's Lyric Opera, London's Royal Opera and Milan's La Scala.
Having conquered hearts in youthful assignments such as Yeletsky and Valentin, he grew into a stern, dignified Germont, a seething Count di Luna, a powerful Renato and a world-weary Simon Boccanegra, all at the Met. Elsewhere he has been hailed as a sensational Rigoletto. But for all his Verdian credentials, it is in his native Russian repertory that Hvorostovsky's velvet baritone and essentially lyric expression can shine forth in their fullest glory. In Robert Carsen's evocative production of Eugene Onegin at the Met — a much-admired stage performance well captured on DVD — his coolly aristocratic Eugene Onegin, stolid and impassive even in the wake of his confrontation with Lenski, melted convincingly in the consuming heat of passion in Tchaikovsky's devastating final scene. As Prince Andrei in War and Peace — perhaps the most moving and beautiful of all his portrayals — he tapped into a tenderness, vulnerability and wistful naïveté that are not often part of his histrionic makeup. The throbbing, undulating music of the waltz proved a perfect vehicle for his most richly lyrical outpourings. The yearning melancholy that is such an essential aspect of the collective Russian spirit imbued his every dramatic and musical gesture, while the sweeping romanticism of Prokofiev's vocal line seemed to illuminate him from within. In André's febrile and fragile final aria, backed by the composer's eerie "piti-piti" chorus, Hvorostovsky's ethereal sound as the Prince's life ebbed away perfectly captured the tenuous thread that still connected him to the world.
When he's not tearing a passion to tatters on the opera stage, Hvorostovsky can be found in the recital hall, most often as a particularly dedicated, persuasive exponent of the Russian song repertory. Find his performance of "Ochi chornye," from VAI's 1998 live-concert DVD, and try not to succumb to the lure of his dark, sensual sound and the inexorable slow build in intensity to the song's wrenching conclusion. His latest album, a program of songs by his countryman Rachmaninov, displays the mastery of native style — the stormy depths, the moody surges of passion — that have made him the Russian baritone of his generation.
The accolades Hvorostovsky has received in his wide-ranging career are too numerous to list, but one striking example was a 1991 nod as one of People magazine's fifty "most beautiful people" — truly a rare pop-culture distinction for a denizen of the esoteric world of opera. Then again, Hvorostovsky has stood out from the beginning as an artist whose appeal transcends the narrow field of classical music. Clearly the man who once described his most cherished artistic dream as establishing a "link of intimacy with every member of the audience" has not fallen far short of his goal.
LOUISE T. GUINTHER