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Gypsy Fire

Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili returns to the Met this month as Azucena.
By Jennifer Melick
Portraits by FE Pinheiro
 

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Portraits by Fe Pinheiro
Phenomena Frost Necklace and Earrings, featuring white diamonds set in white gold, De Beers
Fashion styling by Natalie Yuksel; hair and makeup by Christelle Ribeiro/Backstage Agency
It’s not just the size of the voice that makes an impression; it’s the way she uses it.
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Azucena at Covent Garden, 2016
© ROH/Catherine Ashmore
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Carmen to Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Don José at the Met, 2014
© Beatriz Schiller

THINGS HAVE COME TOGETHER with dizzying speed for Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. Perhaps that’s why her attitude seems so fresh and unspoiled. She was one of a starry cast of singers performing at this summer’s French National Day celebrations in Paris on July 14; she sang a surpassingly sweet “O ma lyre immortelle,” from Gounod’s Sapho,under the Eiffel Tower, holding back until the very end, allowing multiple opportunities to hear her easy, surprisingly floaty top range. In her Lakmé flower duet with Nadine Sierra, the pair’s perfectly blended thirds wafted out effortlessly into the night. She is “very, very excited” that James Levine is her conductor for her first Metropolitan Opera Azucenas in Il Trovatore this month and next. In May, she’s back in New York to sing Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death at Carnegie Hallwith Mirga Gražinyte•-Tyla, another rising star, leading the Met Orchestra. Her first solo recording on the Sony Classical label, mostly standard mezzo repertoire, is coming out this winter, too. 

“I really love my job!” says Rachvelishvili. “Not every single person is lucky enough to do and be successful with what they like. Music is something really special, and we singers do something that we love to do, so it’s important to enjoy it. When you love your job the way I love this job, it should be fun! Every single time you go onstage, it’s a new possibility to show to yourself that you can be better.” Or, she adds wryly, “do worse but convince yourself you have to do better next time. It’s a good thing to work on yourself, to find yourself and to be better every time.”

Rachvelishvili vividly remembers her first time performing onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House. “It was a shocking moment. When you come from the minus-one floor to the stage, and you see the Met choir, and the people in the house, you just can’t breathe for a while—it’s impossible. The house is huge, and there’s the huge and beautiful Met orchestra. The impression is so strong and so beautiful. You stop, and you think, ‘Oh my god, I’m in this house, and I’m only twenty-eight—maybe twenty-seven, not even twenty-eight—and one of the biggest houses, and this role.” The role was Carmen, in 2011; Rachvelishvili jumped in when the originally announced singer withdrew, and she had only a few days of rehearsal. “I had this moment of shock that was very, very strong, but it was a beautiful emotion.” 

“Beautiful” is Rachvelishvili’s go-to adjective; it bubbles up in conversation every few minutes. Carmen has been her alter ego since 2009, when she rocketed to fame at twenty-five by performing the role at La Scala opposite Jonas Kaufmann, led by Daniel Barenboim, an early champion. Since then, she has sung it everywhere, from Verona, Berlin, Turin and Detroit to London, Mannheim, Toronto and Dresden. When we spoke last summer, she had just finished a run at Paris National Opera, and she had sung a string of Carmens earlier in 2017, first at the Bavarian Staatsoper, then at Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Tbilisi Paliashvili Opera House in her native Georgia. Hers is not a sexpot, flashy or even particularly extroverted Carmen, though she has a seriously intimidating don’t-mess-with-me swagger. At full throttle, she is a force to behold; in Chicago last March, she was so secure in her phrasing that she gave the illusion of improvising. Her voice doesn’t so much hit you as envelop you—you could wrap yourself inside the word “l’amour” in the habanera. She views Carmen as a “double-faced woman who does things that you do not like,” but she says she also understands Carmen more and more each time she sings her. “It’s a beautiful discovery every time.” 

Verdi’s Azucena, of course, is a very different Gypsy. People who heard Rachvelishvili sing the role just a year ago at Covent Garden could hardly believe that it was her role debut. The Guardian’s Tim Ashley called her “thrillingly intense,” while Bachtrack.com’s David Karlin was stunned by her “terrifying high notes” and the “heartbreaking sweetness” of her “Ai nostri monti.” It’s not just the size of the voice that makes an impression; it’s the way she uses it. As Amneris in Aida at La Scala in 2015, recorded live and released on DVD, her precision in phrasing produces a sort of controlled abandon. Her sound is better suited to a large opera house. The vibrato is prominent and slow-ish, which on rare occasions can make the pitch shade low in the middle voice but for the most part makes her clean control all the more impressive.

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As Carmen at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2017, with Brandon Jovanovich (Don José)
© Andrew Cioffi
 

RACHVELISHVILI IS A UNIQUE dramatic presence. Her dark, smoldering eyes and cascading black curls are striking, but what is unusual is the juxtaposition of fiery surface and an inward-focused quality, seeming to draw power from some secret space. In that 2015 Aida, her desperation as she begs Radamès (Fabio Sartori) to save himself is so personal that it’s hard to watch, a public display of Amneris’s private hell. She’s not projecting emotion to the audience; she seems powerless in the face of emotions that are literally knocking her to the ground. In her final moment, lying prostrate on a rock over the tomb, with Radamès and Aida (Kristin Lewis) underneath, she is no spoiled princess but a genuinely tragic figure. The cast members are shaken, weeping during the curtain calls. 

In Rachvelishvili’s view, Amneris is “just in love, that’s all. And she is jealous, like every in-love woman. She is so distressed that she is losing her only love. When it comes to the last judgment scene, I concentrate all my energies. You have to express yourself not only with the voice but with everything, the body—put out all of your emotions, all of your pain, in the maximum way possible, so that audiences feel what shefeels in that moment.”

She insists that the source of these extraordinary happenings onstage is old-school: it’s all in the score. There are plenty of voices she admires—among them Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson and George London—but she  is adamant about not modeling her interpretation on anyone else’s. Instead, she says, she tries to “make an image, create something that’s new. You have to create something of your own. When you do that, people who listen may not understand what is different, but they will understand that there is somethingdifferent. I really follow the score, and all dynamics composer wrote in the score, all the things in the libretto. I sit down and learn every single note by myself, and then maybe after debut of the opera, I will listen to some recordings, just a couple.” 

Rachvelishvili comes from a musical family: her mother was a singer and ballerina and danced in a Georgian folk ensemble, and her father is a composer and singer. But she started off listening to rock—Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Whitesnake. She was busy singing rock, crossover, pop and soul music when, as she recalls, “A friend of my father said, ‘That voice sounds very big for a pop singer.’” She went to the conservatory in Tbilisi to see if she had potential as an opera singer. She did. “One year after that little audition, I was absolutely sure that I really wanted to sing opera.”

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As Amneris at the Paris Opera, 2016
© Damiana Guerganova/Opéra National de Paris
 

WHEREVER SHE IS SINGING, Rachvelishvili stays closely connected to home. These days, she travels for work with her husband, Oto Maisuradze, and returns home to Tbilisi as often as possible, two or three times a year, to spend time with her parents and extended family. Sometimes it’s easier for her family members to travel to her instead, wherever she is performing. When in New York, she makes sure always to stop by for a meal at Oda House, a Georgian restaurant where she is well known, and where there is an “amazing chef.” At home, she is a star who is recognized on the street, which seems to amuse and gratify her. “There are three million people in Georgia. It’s a very small country,” she says. “So, of course, every time I do something, from the TV, all the people see me of course, they recognize me on the street and stop and talk with me. It’s very nice when people know you.” She has done a lot of charity concerts on television, “because this is a poor country—a lot of students need help, a lot of sick people need help.” 

You can find videos of some of Rachvelishvili’s charity and club concerts online, and they are worth watching, whether with the Georgian Philharmonic or with pops orchestras or jazz combos. She calls such performances “crossover,” but whatever you call them, she’s a natural in pop, at ease with a microphone. She can pull back the opera volume,and she’sgot rhythm and style, never coming off as an opera diva out of her element. Her “Summertime” with the Georgian Philharmonic may be one of the most sensuous renditions out there—a lazy-tempo, jazzy, gospel-y approach to Gershwin. Elsewhere, her rendition of Giya Kancheli’s song “Nu Medzakhi,” with a small combo led by pianist/conductor/arranger Nikoloz Rachveli (no relation), a frequent collaborator, makes you wish she’d record an album of Jobim or Piaf—or popular Russian or Georgian songs.  

This spring, she sings Santuzza for the first time in Rome. She’s also in discussions about her “dream role”—Charlotte in Werther. Because she has a big voice, she says “directors always think I will sing Charlotte the way I sing Amneris, which is wrong. French Romantic repertoire is a very different type of style. Charlotte is a dream for now, but I am sure I will do it.” Also on her wishlist is Didon in Les Troyens; she wasoffered the role two years ago but only now feels technically ready to sing it. She says she could “easily do Wagner today, but that means you never go back to Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, or to other French composers, and bel canto music would be absolutely impossible to sing after Wagner. I want to keep the voice young, keep as long as possible the Romantic, lyric repertoire. I’m still thirty-three. Maybe in fifteen years…. But I don’t want to risk that much, and still I really love all the things I am able to do now.”

Because Rachvelishvili can be quite serious in conversation, it’s a surprise to see her let loose on social media. “Usually it’s me by myself doing pictures, taking and posting selfies” on Instagram, she says. There are photos of her in her dressing room, heavily made up as Amneris; standing outside the opera house in Muscat, Oman, grinning goofily with her husband; on a mountaintop with her parents; showing off a new manicure; posing her husband as Poseidon in the Black Sea, complete with trident. “I really love being in contact with people who follow me, and who appreciate what I do,” she says. “This is the only thing that we really want when we are in contact with our audience. We want to feel their love—‘They like it, they like it!’ The moment when we finish the opera and go onstage to take the applause—the most important moment of the evening is that.” spacer 

Jennifer Melick is managing editor of Symphony. 



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