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The Opera News Awards: Sonya Yoncheva
| soprano |

By Henry Stewart 

Opera News Awards Yoncheva hdl 418
Photograph by Dario Acosta
© Beth Bergman

SONYA YONCHEVA evolving soprano has gymnastic capabilities in its upper range, yet it remains clear and even in its middle. It’s a big voice, but not a bulky one; it’s full of light, like a room crowded with candles—unless, as she transitions into darker dramatic repertoire, she doesn’t want it to be. “Flexible” isn’t a strong enough word to describe it.

Yoncheva came to opera by a less-traveled road; as a teenager, the Bulgarian hosted a local TV show called Music, an introduction to showbiz that helped prepare her for the performance aspects of her present job as one of the soaring stars of international opera. She left television for serious vocal study, first at the Geneva Conservatory, then as a young artist in Le Jardin des Voix, Les Arts Florissants’s academy, under the guidance of maestro William Christie. “A 2012 Opéra de Lille video of Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea … provides a sense of what Yoncheva learned in those years,” OPERA NEWS reported in a 2016 cover story. “Yoncheva’s voice reinforces the impression of sensual abandon. But if you listen closely, you hear the finely gauged control of its deployment.”

She soon branched out of Baroque repertoire into more lyric and coloratura roles, without losing that finely gauged control, which was still audible in her Violetta at the Met last season. In “È strano,” Yoncheva’s voice floated between notes, leading to a remarkably delicate “Ah! fors’è lui,” in which she sounded as soft and pliant as a marshmallow—and as sweet, too. But her voice and body followed the dramatic arc of the long soliloquy, from tender to furious to anguished, ending with a “Sempre libera” in which she shattered her champagne glass in Willy Decker’s big-clock production before her soprano had the chance to, by throwing it against a wall. Her high notes are unrefrigerated butter, and she’s the knife, working them into every nook and cranny of Verdi’s score, even the crazy cadenzas; it’s ravishing.

Opera News Awards Yoncheva Tosca hdl 418 
Yoncheva as Tosca in Act II of David McVicar’s staging, with Vittorio Grigolo (Mario Cavaradossi)
© Beth Bergman

This large, elastic voice has served her well in roles such as Mimì (“Donde lieta uscì,” heard on her 2015 Sony recital Paris, Mon Amour, is more delicately phrased and felt than many of her contemporaries can manage), but her dramatic commitment is just as important to her successes. Her Norma at Covent Garden in 2016 (preserved on DVD) had to compete in “Casta Diva” with an enormous thurible, swinging like a happy bell, but she easily won the contest for the audience’s attention: her voice was wide open but full of aptly prayerful humility; she surrenders herself—to god? To Bellini?—while asking for guidance with almost Isolde-like rapture. 

Her “Ave Maria,” from Otello at the Met in 2015, shows similar sincerity and helplessness, with flickers of desperation in her tears and a purity of tone no god could ignore. Her final “Amen”s ache with hope and sadness. But her Tosca at the Met earlier this year showed off a dissimilar sort of supplication. She sang a brash, almost furious “Vissi d’arte,” here no self-pitying prayer but a morally outraged io accuso, in which she seemed less to speak to god than to whip herself up for Scarpia’s coming murder. In Act I, she had appealingly maintained a measure of her voice’s old brightness, teasing out the comedy of Puccini’s jealous prima donna. But by the end, the voice had darkened considerably, developing dramatic weight while remaining legère—a microcosm of her career up to now.  —Henry Stewart 

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