Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, 55, has died following a battle with brain cancer.
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22 November 2017

Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, 55, One of Opera's Most Elegant and Expressive Voices, has Died

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Dmitri Hvorostovsky 


SIBERIAN BARITONE DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY, 55, has died following a battle with brain cancer. One of the most elegant and expressive voices in opera, Hvorostovsky passed away this morning at 3:20 a.m. London time. His family released the following statement:

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Dmitri Hvorostovsky—beloved operatic baritone, husband, father, son, and friend—at age 55. After a two and a half year battle with brain cancer, he died peacefully at 3:20am GMT on Wednesday, November 22 surrounded by his family at a hospice facility near their home in London, UK. He is survived by his wife, Florence Hvorostovsky, and their two children, Maxim (14) and Nina (10); his twin children, Alexandra and Daniel (21), from a previous marriage; and his parents, Alexander and Lyudmila. Having retired from the opera stage at the end of 2016 due to complications from the tumor, Hvorostovsky made his final public appearance in a “Dmitri and Friends” concert at Austria's Grafenegg Festival in June; in September, he was awarded the Order of Merit for the Fatherland of the IV degree, one of the highest non-military honors in his native Russia, for his great contribution to Russian art and culture.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s voice was like the best kind of embrace—exceptionally warm, powerful but not smothering, drawing you in and not letting go. There was almost no edge to the sound; it was all plush and power and core, giving the illusion of unwavering strength. He stood ramrod-straight, and when he opened his mouth to sing, the long phrase arcs of Verdi or Tchaikovsky or Mozart seemed to roll out undergirded by phenomenal breath control and, presumably, huge natural lung capacity. His pitch was remarkably accurate, so that even American listeners unfamiliar with Russian operas such as Queen of Spades or War and Peace could clearly perceive Yeletsky’s and Prince Andrei’s lines and, underneath them, the harmonic progression the composer was going for. If you understood even a bit of Russian, you could make out every word. Because the text was so clear, and put across in a way that felt so direct and intimate, the vastness of the opera house seemed to disappear, and arias felt more like songs. Conversely, in songs—even “Moscow Windows” on his 2005 album of post-World War II songs Moscow Nights, which sounds like it belongs in the soundtrack of a 1960s James Bond movie—he took great care to keep histrionics to a minimum, making those songs somehow more like arias—less sentimental, and more substantial, meaningful and special.  

Hvorostovsky’s voice, combined with his looks—those eyes, and the prematurely silver shock of hair that made him so perfect for Tchaikovsky’s Byronesque lady-killer Eugene Onegin—turned him into a pop-culture idol. People magazine named him one of the world’s fifty most beautiful people in 1991, and he was featured on the popular Barihunks website on the second day of its existence with a link to him singing “Ya vas lyublyu,” from Queen of Spades. In his native Russia, he became the single-name superstar Dima, à la Madonna or Sting. He grew up in the Soviet Union, but unlike singers ten or twenty years his senior, he was lucky to hit his prime just as the U.S.S.R. disbanded and artist travel to the West became easier and more frequent. Thus he became a top name internationally as well, touring on his own and with the Mariinsky Opera and Valery Gergiev at opera houses pretty much everywhere.  

In 1989, Hvorostovsky leapt to attention by winning the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. Footage from the competition finals—the Verdi arias “Son io, mio Carlo,” from Don Carlo, and “Eri tu,” from Un Ballo in Maschera—demonstrate that already, at twenty-seven, Hvorostovsky had everything in place. He displays the creamy legato, polished phrasing, raw power and aristocratic stage persona for which he would become widely known. His Italian is natural and idiomatic, and it’s obvious he understands the words. His rolled rs are exquisite. His voice is powerful, but it floats, so that it never feels heavy. There is a stillness, a dignified composure, that made him a natural fit for principled characters such as Rodrigo, or rulers such as Simon Boccanegra, the latter recorded in 2015 with Barbara Frittoli (Amelia), Stefano Secco (Gabriele) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Fiesco), with Lithuania’s Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and State Chorus, led by longtime colleague Constantine Orbelian.

Opera is full of low-voiced fathers and schemers and villains; not every baritone is successful as the love interest, but these characters suited Dima to a tee. His impassioned love arias in the works of Tchaikovsky — Mazeppa’s “O, Marija, Marija!” and Robert’s “Kto mozhet sravnitsa s Matildoi moyei,” from Iolanta—seem to in draw the listener physically, and in Queen of Spades it seems inconceivable that Lisa would resist his rendition of Yeletsky’s “Ya vas lyublu.” As Mozart’s Don Giovanni, he was all suave seduction in “Deh, vieni alla finestra.” He had a special affinity for roles such as the bored aristocrat Eugene Onegin, the princes Yeletsky and Andrei, and Mozart’s Count Almaviva.  

Hvorostovsky’s timbre—a bel canto smoothness with chocolate-y Slavic hints—miked and recorded well, and his telegenic face was a boon for TV and HD opera, especialy given his ability to scale down opera-house expressions to the dimensions of the small screen. Like many top-tier opera singers, he performed and recorded music he personally was drawn to, or that he felt wasn’t widely enough known. He seemed to have a new recital disc out every year or two, tackling everything from Russian liturgical music to Shostakovich’s Suite on Poems by Michelangelo and Liszt’s Petrarca Sonnets to music inspired by poetry of Pushkin and songs of Georgy Sviridov. This was all in addition to numerous operatic CDs and DVDs, including gala concerts and arias and duets with singers ranging from Renée Fleming and Anna Netrebko to Olga Borodina and Sondra Radvanovsky.  

Life was not all smooth sailing for the baritone. Growing up in Siberia in the late Soviet era was not easy, and Hvorostovsky spoke openly about his struggles in the 1990s with alcohol, which he gave up entirely in 2001. The father of four children from two marriages, he lived happily for many years in London with his second wife, Florence. He retained an intense connection to Russia, however—one that he said grew stronger during the years away. In 2003, he released an album of popular Russian songs from the World War II years, “Where Are You, My Brothers?”. His follow-up 2005 disc, Moscow Nights, featuring popular and deeply sentimental songs from the postwar Soviet era, is nothing short of spectacular. “Kak molodiy my byli” (How Young We Were), with its sweeping violins and key changes, steps right to the edge of taste, but Hvorostovsky somehow imbues it with dignity: he’s sharing it, not selling it. At the end of the song, he dips to a whispery hush, the sound of a grandfather remembering his youth. The CD’s final bonus track, Shostakovich’s “Rodina slyshit” (Motherland hears), features Dmitri both young and old: it starts with a home recording of him singing the song as an eleven-year-old boy, with his father at the piano, then morphs into him singing the song as an adult. It’s not just a look back for Dmitri: to any Russian of a certain age, the song is remembered as the one that Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was listening to while circling the earth as the first man in space in 1961. 

Russian folksong presents a bit of the same challenge as singing Mozart: it’s not as easy as it seems. The repeated dominant note of the scale is what you hear over and over in “Odnozvuchno gremit kolokol’chik” (The Lonely Coach Bell) on Hvorostovsky’s 2014 album The Bells of Dawn: Russian Sacred and Folk Songs. “Kolokol’chik” is slow and ruminative, and its lyric arcs seem to stretch on and on: Hvorostovsky makes it sound effortless. Here, singing over simple triads voiced by a wordless choir, he ends every stanza except the last one on the dominant note, and each time it’s more compelling than the last. Why? There is just the right hesitation, the pitches are centered just so, and there’s an acute sense of nostalgia and yearning, but there is also an intangible and ineffable quality. It’s a small mystery.

In June 2015, it was announced that Hvorostovsky was being treated in London for brain cancer. The mood was highly charged when he returned to the Met the following September, after several months of cancelations, to sing Count di Luna in Il Trovatore.Opera-lovers were deliriously happy to have him back onstage, and they showed it with thunderous applause at his first entrance and again after his aria “Il balen,” in which he sounded remarkably unchanged. His presence notched things up, spurring Netrebko’s Leonora and Dolora Zajick’s Azucena to a feverish intensity. At curtain call, he was showered with white roses as Netrebko, a close friend, stood beside him in tears. That fall, he threw himself back into performing, and the next month he was back in the studio to record Dmitri Hvorostovsky Sings of War, Peace, Love and Sorrow, featuring arias and scenes from Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Rubinstein’s Demon and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, Queen of Spades and Mazeppa

In December 2016, balance issues resulting from his brain cancer began to surface, making it difficult to move onstage, and he withdrew from all staged opera productions, among them a Eugene Onegin at the Met in spring 2017, as well as Germont in Vienna, Iago in Dresden and di Luna in London. He kept his 2017 concert dates in Kaliningrad, Minsk, Vienna, Toronto, Dublin and Moscow. 

It was obvious how much joy Hvorostovsky got from being onstage, even in the silliest, hokiest moments of opera galas, such as an “O sole mio” he sang with Jonas Kaufmann in Moscow in 2008. The grin on his face seems to say, “If you can’t have fun with this, what’s the point?” He wasn’t above State-sponsored spectaculars: in 2003, for instance, he sang World War II-era songs before 6,000 people at the Kremlin. If his voice was an embrace, audiences embraced him right back: via YouTube, you can watch as the camera pans over the rapt faces of the crowd as he sings “Moscow Nights” in Moscow’s Red Square in June 2013. Audience members aren’t screaming, but their adoring expressions wouldn’t be out of place at an Elvis or Beatles concert. Even Netrebko looks overcome at moments: Hvorostovsky had that effect on people.  —Jennifer Melick 

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