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Elements of Style

Who says you can't have it all? Dmitri Hvorostovsky has looks, brains, charisma — and what might just be the most beautiful baritone voice in the world. This month, he adds Ernani's Don Carlo to his growing list of Verdi roles. What's up next for Hvorostovsky? OUSSAMA ZAHR reports.

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Portrait photographed in New York by Johannes Ifkovits
© Johannes Ifkovits 2012
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As Simon Boccanegra at the Met, 2011
© Beatriz Schiller 2012
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Il Trovatore at the Met, 2009
© Beth Bergman 2012

Dmitri Hvorostovsky doesn't dial down his energy when he's offstage. The handsome Siberian baritone with the silver locks and onyx-colored voice, at once shining and dark, isn't the kind of singer who lights up a stage only to go unnoticed on the street. As he settles into a sofa in the capacious Upper East Side apartment where he was staying during last season's Met revival of Il Trovatore — the home of a close friend, comprising no fewer than three floors, complete with Central Park views — his charisma is unmistakable. "We have a saying in Russia — you're met by the way you dress, the way you look, but then people say goodbye to you the way you are," he says. "Unfortunately or fortunately, that's the way our profession demands it to be."

Even early in his career, Hvorostovsky specialized in making a striking first impression. When he shot to prominence by winning the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989, he was essentially a finished product: his glamorous timbre, seamlessly stitched legato and astonishing breath control — the cornerstones on which he has built his reputation — are all in ample evidence on the DVD recording of the competition. "If you look like a young Nureyev and sing like Lisitsian," wrote Alan Blyth in Opera at the time, "the opera world is open to you." 

Once Hvorostovsky had everyone's attention, he was able to leverage his looks and his talent to construct a career on his own terms, singing exactly what he wants to sing the way he wants to sing it. While acknowledging that the title role of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is perhaps his signature role, Hvorostovsky has worked hard over the past decade to fashion himself as a Verdi baritone in an eminently lyrical vein. 

Hvorostovsky, now forty-nine, has been collecting Verdi roles much the same way he collected Verdi LPs as a child, savoring each one for its special beauty. American audiences have had the chance to see him in just about every one, starting with Germont in La Traviata, the role of his U.S. debut in Chicago in 1993. For a lyric baritone so devoted to Verdi, appearances as Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera, Rodrigo in Don Carlo and Count di Luna in Il Trovatore were perhaps inevitable. But a surprising development came in 2000, when Hvorostovsky began to supplement the lyrical assignments that seemed his lot by nature with long, dramatic sings such as Rigoletto ("probably the most difficult," he says) and Simon Boccanegra ("the most beautiful"). "Lyricism has been always my forte, which I happily kept through nowadays," he says. "Although I've changed the repertoire, and I've added so many dramatic roles to my operatic repertoire, to keep the lyricism and cantilena in your voice is most important." 

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As Posa in Don Carlo at the Met, 2006
© Johan Elbers 2012

Hvorostovsky has proved the validity of his legato-based approach to Verdi time and again, even if his voice has lost some of its youthful tonal sheen. As Germont, he sings a liquid "Pura siccome un angelo" and a classy, perfectly shaped "Di Provenza." His resplendent Boccanegra seems to stretch out phrases to impossible lengths, imparting Shakespearean dimension to the tragedy of the fallen doge. His seductively sinister di Luna at the Met last year showed that even a villain need not be articulated in the rough and gruff way that has come to dominate Verdi style. 

"With the bigger venues and huge orchestras, style is being changed," says Hvorostovsky. "And even the Italian singers haven't had literally anybody amongst the young singers for the last twenty-two years. They do not represent the ultimate beauty of Italian technique anymore — especially in the Verdi repertoire. It's all about barking and shouting, and it becomes more of a Broadway."

Gianandrea Noseda, who conducted Hvorostovsky in the Met premiere of David McVicar's production of Il Trovatore, in 2009, thinks the baritone has achieved a special unity of styles for certain tricky Verdi roles, such as di Luna. "I have to say Dima convinced me a hundred percent, if not more, because he was able to treat it not anymore as bel canto but not yet as a dramatic Verdian baritone. Just to find that very difficult limbo — it's not here, it's not there," he says. "I think the way was to sing extremely legato, so the connection between notes was still in the bel canto line, but the color of the voice is lyrical but darker, without losing the linearity, the beauty of the sound. That is incredible."

This month, Hvorostovsky adds yet another portrait to his gallery of Verdi roles when he sings Don Carlo in Ernani for the very first time, in the revival of the Met's 1983 production by Pier Luigi Samaritani. He says the role of Carlo, the King of Spain who would be Holy Roman Emperor, is "high and bulky," requiring a big voice, so he needed time to grow into it. "I should have done it earlier. But it's very high — extremely high. The tessitura is so high it's almost tenor-like. I'm not surprised Plácido wants to sing it," he laughs, referring to the Spanish tenor's second career as a Verdi baritone. "I just watched a bit of his Rigoletto. It's lovely. It doesn't sound like a baritone, it sounds like our old Plácido, who we love and admire very much. It's a little naïve, but if someone can sing so well, I think he should do that, whatever he wants to sing. Whether he wants to sing Don Giovanni or Sparafucile, who cares? I don't mind at all."

Hvorostovsky also doesn't mind that so many Verdi baritone roles are subordinate characters. He notes that the composer "was a baritone himself," so "the most comfortable and beautifully written lines are written for baritone by Verdi, by far." On paper, Ernani's Don Carlo is basically the odd man out in a plot that already involves a love triangle. But he comes to life in the music, snagging one of the opera's two standout moments — the Act III scena "Gran Dio!… Oh de' verd'anni miei." "It's probably the most powerful and demanding role, and it's almost the title role," says Hvorostovsky. "You dominate onstage until you're through [the aria], and then you leave, just finishing up with the tenor and soprano and the bass. There is nobody, really, curious about what's going to happen after." There is some truth to the notion: Richard Tucker allegedly turned down the title role in a production at La Scala, complaining that the tenor part is basically a comprimario role.

Hvorostovsky is satisfied with the Met's traditional production for Ernani. "It's a typical bel canto-style opera," he notes. "What else can you do with it? Can you make them all mafiosi?" But he has one regret about taking on the opera at this moment in his career. "It's only bad that I'm going to try it out on the stage of the Met. It doesn't deserve to be a tryout place. C'mon! It's the best stage in the world. You should go and try somewhere else."

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Rigoletto in Vienna, 2010
© Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Zeininger 2012

W ith his great looks and magnetic presence, Hvorostovsky seems tailor-made for the Live in HD craze. If he lacks the theatrical specificity of the best singing actors, he makes up for it with a smoldering intensity that plays well in close-up. He has performed for movie-theater audiences in the Met's Live in HD presentations of Eugene Onegin and Il Trovatore , and he will appear in two more this season, with Ernani at the end of the month and Willy Decker's staging of La Traviata in April. He was conspicuously absent from Vanity Fair' s drive-by piece about the Met's new breed of Live in HD personalities three years ago, but it's arguable he didn't need the exposure. Long before Nathan Gunn, Erwin Schrott and Mariusz Kwiecien were baring their chests for their art and their audiences, Hvorostovsky was named one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People," back in 1991. 

Twenty years later, Hvorostovsky, wearing distressed jeans and a light-blue form-fitting hoodie, is pragmatic on the subject of sex appeal. "In a way, it's part of my package — the way I look, that's the way I sound, actually. You can draw the parallel," he says. "I was working against it in the beginning. I was opposing the media approach of me as a sex symbol — red-hot Siberian express and blahdy-blahdy-blah. I said, 'Look and listen at what I'm performing! What am I singing about?' And it really was a little distracting to begin with, because I was young and ambitious. Then soon I realized that you just have to get along." 

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Germont to Renée Fleming's Violetta, 2003
© Johan Elbers 2012

It's worth noting that the one time Hvorostovsky went shirtless on the Met stage, in 2007, it wasn't in Don Giovanni or some other predictable barihunk vehicle but in that jewel in the crown of Russian opera, Eugene Onegin. Having broken Tatiana's heart and murdered his best friend in a meaningless, prideful duel, his Onegin stood perfectly and arrogantly still, as attendants busily dressed him to the boisterous sounds of Tchaikovsky's polonaise. It was an eloquent statement of the young Russian landowner's consuming vanity, and Hvorostovsky didn't sing a word. But then he turned around in the devastating final act to deliver the unraveling of Onegin's hauteur, a heartthrob pouring out his emotions to the lover he once spurned, as he crumbled pitifully into the skirt of her gown. 

Hvorostovsky's ability to suggest Onegin's vulnerability — hanging on Tatiana's every word, first broken and then distraught — was the work of an artist who forges an incredible connection with his audience, particularly in light of the fact that Onegin has far fewer lines than Tatiana to sing in the finale. Hvorostovsky had no trouble suggesting the Romantic hero's epiphany as a man of feeling. In person, though, that crack in the armor is sealed up, and Hvorostovsky is a little guarded: an aura emanates from him, and you can't always tell whether he's pulling you in or pushing you away. 

Constantine Orbelian, music director of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and a close friend and collaborator of Hvorostovsky, thinks the baritone's manner is innately Siberian. "The Western Russians, the Muscovites — if you remember that big famous picture of Brezhnev kissing Honecker on the mouth — are very physical," he says. "Men kiss, women kiss, it's a completely different physical relationship people have with people. It's normal. But the Siberians don't do that. It doesn't mean they don't feel like the Western Russians. They're a little bit more distant. It's not aloof. It's a physical distance.

"People kind of laugh at the word — it's aristocratic," Orbelian explains. "That's why he sits so well in these roles, as a Prince Yeletsky or a Eugene Onegin. The whole body language is aristocracy. He just has this way that he carries himself."

Hvorostovsky had a taste of celebrity long before the Met began turning its singers into movie stars, and it's possible that it has made him cautious. He is something of a national treasure in Russia. He broke through to a mainstream audience there in 2003, when he sang a concert of World War II-era popular songs that was telecast around the former U.S.S.R. on May 9, the day that Russians commemorate VE-Day. More than 90 million people tuned in. Soon enough, says Orbelian, who conducted the concert, "There wasn't a cab driver, a waitress or anyone in the country who didn't know who Dmitri Hvorostovsky was. He was a national hero."

"The more steps I made toward the audience — the simpler audience, not the operatic and classic trained — the more successful it became," says Hvorostovsky. He went more commercial still, in 2009, when he cut Déjà Vu, a disc of Russian, French and Italian pop-art songs written by Igor Krutoy. He also filmed his first music video, dressed in bondage gear and a long blond wig, to promote the album. "It was fun to me — believe it or not. It was a lot to experiment and to live through. So that came with a new dimensional approach to new audiences — all the nouveau riche Russians, you know, loving me."

The flip side of such fame is a very demanding audience, particularly in his native country. "I attract too many people trying to get a piece of me," he says, "and I have to protect myself. So sometimes I just escape. I can never be comfortable at crowded parties. I physically feel in pain, I have headaches. Too many people. Conversations. Too much noise. So it's a big stress to me. And [people] asking the same stupid questions, 'So, uh, Dmitri….'  You have to be on guard all the time. It's a lot of energy spent." 

Anna Netrebko, who made her Met debut alongside Hvorostovsky in War and Peace in 2002, remembers that he was sweet and protective of her ("because I was a Russian," she says with a giggle) and calls every performance with him "always something very special." She acknowledges that he's "not very open, not for everyone. He can be quite arrogant to people whom he don't like. And I like this honesty about him. He has an incredibly beautiful and wonderful wife, and he loves his family. And everything else, it is just a job." Netrebko, who has a sexy opera-singer husband of her own, Erwin Schrott, thinks Hvorostovsky is right to be guarded. "In our profession we have to protect ourselves — especially the men," she laughs.

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Eugene Onegin at the Met, 2007
© Beth Bergman 2012

Hvorostovsky is something of a paragon of vocal technique. "I'm such a fan," says Renée Fleming, who has performed with him regularly for two decades. "His technique is exemplary. He has the most amazing breath control I've ever heard. He would put together four phrases in one breath. I used to always tease him about having an extra lung." In the past, Hvorostovsky has confessed to showing off his enormous reserves of breath in performance, but nowadays he's willing to poke a little fun at himself. "I was starting Don Carlo at Teatro alla Scala with Bob Kettelson, who passed away unfortunately — a great American vocal coach," he remembers. "And Riccardo Muti came to the room, and I was just singing — literally sight-reading — one of the lines. And because I didn't really know the music, it wasn't fluent, but I just sang it all the way through, and I forgot to take a breath, and so I had to keep going. And Muti had realized it and said, 'Well, obviously this breath control, all this long-line singing — he just doesn't know when to take a breath! It's as simple as that.'" 

It was all the more surprising, then, when Hvorostovsky fell on vocal troubles in 2010; a grueling tour in support of Déjà Vu, including three concerts in four days of a twenty-four-song program, precipitated what he terms "a vocal crisis." "I almost lost my voice," he says. "I was depressed, tense. I had to seek help from doctors — nobody could help me." Hvorostovsky, praised early in his career for belonging to a generation of charismatic, serious young performers such as Cecilia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel who refused to sell out, found himself in unfamiliar territory. "You know, it made me uncomfortable psychologically, because I wasn't really happy with what I was doing. And it was a concert in New York — Radio City Music Hall — that I sang through, and I decided to not even sing the last encore. I just left the stage — that was enough for me." At one point, Hvorostovsky remembers telling his agent, "This is the end of my career."

"You know what saved me? Rigoletto," he says. "I had tension when waking up in the morning. I had tension in my throat, I could barely speak. I had tension here and here" — he points to his neck and torso — "so all the Chakras, so they're called, were very disturbed." While in rehearsal at the Staatsoper in Vienna, he went to see a well-known doctor who diagnosed him with physical fatigue and assured him that he was fine, telling him, "Don't come to me — you're all right!" and handing him a bill for three or four hundred euros. When his first performance of Rigoletto left him feeling hoarse, Hvorostovsky headed right back to the doctor, who let him see for himself his perfectly white vocal cords on a monitor before shooing him away and billing him for the time. "He shakes my hand, and here I'm going away saying, 'Damn! He charged me again! Four hundred!'" He bursts into laughter. "So my anger started to grow, and I said, 'What's wrong with me?' And somehow, through this laughter, I gained back my confidence, and ever since every performance I sing better and better, and I feel better.

"The overcoming of this obviously psychological fatigue and unhappiness, which happens to performers from time to time, it made me stronger and more secure and protected from such things that can happen to you. And thanks to this pop repertoire, partly. I was so sure of myself as a classical singer: [I thought] I could do anything with a microphone. And apparently it just wasn't true. You had to get certain habits and know how to do it."

His confidence restored, Hvorostovsky has a sure plan for the next phase of his career. "I listen to my voice," he says, "and it's the voice of a certain repertoire. And I tend to just comply with it. For instance, I think in a few years' time I will start doing some bulkier Russian roles, because there's a demand for that. And with my experience and authority, in a certain way, I'll be able — and allowed — to do certain Russian roles and become an expert in that." He mentions Mazeppa, The Demon and perhaps even Prince Igor. And, of course, he has been eyeing Iago in Otello. But are these roles on his calendar, or is he thinking about putting them on his calendar? "If I think of it," he says, "it means that it will be, sooner or later, on my calendar." spacer 

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