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Julia Lezhneva: "Carl Heinrich Graun Opera Arias"

CD Button Concerto Köln, M. Antonenko. Texts and translations. Decca 433 1518

Recordings Julia Lezhneva Cover 917

CARL HEINRICH GRAUN (1704–59) and Johann Adolph Hasse were the leading Germany-based opera composers of their time. Graun wrote more than twenty stage works (including several with librettos by Metastasio, of course), mostly about historical and mythological subjects. Montezuma (1755) has occasionally been revived in modern times, but most of his operas have not been performed for centuries. From the evidence on this disc, that may not be such a bad thing, though the music is at least unfailingly pleasant. 

Julia Lezhneva samples eleven arias from eight works—largely generic pieces for generic opera-seriasituations. Graun supplies bustling activity in bravura numbers but virtually nothing that’s melodically or harmonically memorable; he deploys a lot of churning strings (well played by the excellent Concerto Köln) and, in the vocal line, manic, avian trilling.

Lezhneva, born on the Russian island Sakhalin, has a cult following in Europe. The soprano (who occasionally tackles mezzo repertory) made her Salzburg debut in 2010, when she was barely twenty. Now a “veteran” at twenty-seven, Lezhneva—a genuinely gifted singer, with fleet, expert coloratura—has issued several recordings, some quite pleasing and at least one, of Rossini arias, a complete puzzler. She can dispatch long runs and staccatos like few singers today, and she’s informed and responsible in matters of trill and ornamentation. Her instrument is light and, though somewhat monochrome, can sometimes channel a general expressiveness, plus a kind of essential sincerity of purpose. But in the various characters embodied in these eleven Graun arias—among whom figure such disparate personalities as Agamemnon (Ifigenie in Aulide), Euridice (L’Orfeo), Volumnia (Coriolano) and the title role of Armida—you get no sense of character creation or differentiation. 

Part of the fault is the composer’s, but Lezhneva tends to moan slow, soft numbers in a neo-Sutherland fashion that I find mannered. I hear none of the “bell-like purity” mentioned in Lezhneva’s publicity materials, because even when dealing in “straight tone” effects, she manipulates her tone in a toothpaste-tube-squeezing kind of way that precludes true legato. Very often, high cadenzas or mere upward intervals slide notably sharp. The lowest notes in this wide-ranging music don’t resonate—they’re almost choked—but that may change with time; Lezhneva’s backers and fans are not wrong to see considerable potential in her talent. 

The best testament to Graun here is Lezhneva’s rendition of the aria that led her to investigate his oeuvre—Agrippina’s jaw-droppingly florid “Mi paventi,” from Brittanico (1751)—an exceptional performance that ends the disc. Also, Mikhail Antonenko’s forces contribute a lovely Sinfonia allegro from 1741’s Rodelinda. —David Shengold

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