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The Metropolitan Opera Guild and OPERA NEWS have been around for seventy years - an anniversary we think is worth marking in a special way. So, on November 20, the first OPERA NEWS awards for distinguished achievement will be presented at a dinner and ceremony in the grand ballroom of The Pierre in Manhattan. Who could deny that this year's honorees represent the best of the best? And the OPERA NEWS Awards go to…


Portrait by John-Francis Bourke
Makeup by Brian Kim / Hair by Juliette Veltry / Styling by Debra Finn
© John-Francis Bourke 2005

Passions as outsized as those of Verdi's Azucena, Amneris, Eboli and Lady Macbeth cry out for a voice on a grand scale. But it is rare today to find a singer capable of providing the kind of satisfying "wow" that Verdi surely had in mind when he wrote those dramatic mezzo roles. When a singer comes along who can offer that spine-tingling excitement, and when that singer does it for more than a decade, as Dolora Zajick has, it is a remarkable achievement. As a Verdi mezzo, she has been such a consistent presence that just having her in the cast virtually guarantees at least one or two electrifying moments. If you've heard her live, in full cry, you know what it's like when her laser-beam sound nails you to the back of your seat. On CD, the voice is on such a scale that playback on inferior equipment can from time to time make the speakers rattle. Yet despite the voice's power, her richly colored sound never turns hard, throughout an unusually wide vocal range of three-plus octaves.

Zajick is in a category of her own: her justly famous Eboli, which she next sings in Vienna in February, sails over the heavy strings and brass of the notoriously taxing "O don fatale" as if it were Rossini. As Azucena, her cries of "Mi vendica" and "Il figlio mio!" quickly silence complaints about one of opera's more improbable plot twists - a Gypsy accidentally throwing her own son into a fire - by making the character seem terrifyingly real. But part of what makes a successful Verdi mezzo is the ability to create a long lyric arc in the slower passages, and to scale back from the blazing fortissimos to produce ethereal pianissimo moments. This challenge seems to pose no problem for Zajick, not even in roles often taken by sopranos: in the final stanza of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking aria, she can shift seamlessly from ferocious chest tones to a breathtaking pianissimo high D-flat. The passage is nonetheless instantly identifiable as emanating from the same voice: there is no audible switching of timbre or register, just a constant flow of sound that ranges from the kind of thunderous chest tone that would be the envy of many a contralto to a floated high note that even many sopranos can't achieve as successfully.

For all her mastery of the Verdi canon, it would be a mistake to categorize this mezzo as just a Verdian. As Rusalka's Jezibaba at the Met, Zajick stole every scene in which she appeared, diving wholeheartedly into gleeful, potion-stirring witch mode in "Cury mury fuk," in which she was surrounded - but never upstaged - by adorable hopping frogs and insects from the children's chorus. One quality that is not often mentioned in connection with Zajick's singing is her strong underlying rhythmic core; in an abracadabra conjuring aria such as "Cury mury fuk," that precision allows her to zap words such as "draci" and "ptaci" ("dragon," "bird") to give this evil sorceress a peculiarly comic twist.

Zajick has also given enormous pleasure in verismo roles, in particular Adriana Lecouvreur's Principessa and Cavalleria Rusticana's Santuzza, whose despair she captures vividly in "Voi lo sapete" with whopping chest tones. With the newfound popularity in the West of many operas that once played only to Russian audiences, we can now hear Zajick in roles that perfectly suit her dramatic style: again, as in many of the Verdi parts, these are powerful characters who require a matching voice and presence to make them work. Next summer, Zajick takes on Tchaikovsky's Joan of Arc in San Francisco. On her solo CD The Art of the Dramatic Mezzo-Soprano, Zajick could pass for a native Russian speaker in Joan's farewell aria, "Prastite vy, xalmy," and she makes spectacular demonstrations of the contrasts in music that routinely contains jumps of more than an octave: this is a saint whose outcries are outward, not introspective. As Marfa, the fanatical Old Believer in Khovanshchina, she again summons astonishing chest tones in "Sily patainyye" that one can be certain would call forth the spirits of the deep in a hurry. Next month at the Met, Zajick will take on another believer when she sings Elvira Griffiths, the devoutly religious mother of the central character in Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy, in the opera's world premiere.

These are heady days for mezzo-lovers. But while the mezzo ranks are almost entirely populated with pinpoint-coloratura singers, at home in the works of Rameau, Vivaldi, Gluck, Rossini and Handel, as well as Mozart's Cherubino and lighter German roles such as Octavian, Orlofsky and the Composer, when it comes to the dramatic-mezzo slot, Zajick still reigns largely uncontested. It would be a much smaller, much less thrilling operatic universe without her.


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