Unsung Singers (Part Two): Vivica Genaux

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Careful readers of my blog posts may have discerned that I have a special feeling for the mezzo-soprano voice. This is no reflection on the other vocal categories (I love them all!) but there is a warmth and sensuality to middle range voices (including the baritone) that exerts a special appeal.

I also think, in my case, that I discovered very early on in my opera-loving life the voice and artistry of Marilyn Horne. So many superlatives have been used to describe her singing that I will simply use the word superlative. Everything you want from a singer is there: gorgeous voice, peerless technique, marvelous use of language, vibrant personality and the wow factor that happens when she sings the toughest music by Rossini better than anyone else. To which I would add an uncomplicated directness and sincerity that can only come when no gimmicks are required to make everything work. Almost every type of repertory Horne undertook she excelled at.

I should point out, in the interest of full disclosure, that Horne and I have been friends for 25 years. But I was floored by her singing for 20 years before we met. My Dad used Horne (along with Victoria de los Angeles, Jussi Björling and Ezio Pinza) to teach me what great singing is. I heard Horne and Sutherland in Norma in 1970 and then Marilyn as Carmen in 1972. Couple this with my early love of Rossini and you know why Horne is, for me, in a class of one.

But this did not prevent me from being very taken with other great, charismatic mezzos, starting with Christa Ludwig and including Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry (who probably first awakened me to how exciting opera can be), Frederica von Stade, Fiorenza Cossotto, Elena Obratzova, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, the sensational Dolora Zajick, the imposing Olga Borodina, the magnificent Stephanie Blythe, and a whole batch of current young mezzos. Susan Graham has many admirers for all of her gifts, but they seldom mention her superb artistry and taste. Her performances are always vibrant and in the moment, but are also informed by a culture that few of her colleagues can match. I feel the same, and more, about Joyce DiDonato. And then there are Daniela Barcellona, about whom I have written, and Anna Caterina Antonacci, who is listed as a soprano but makes forays into mezzo territory.

There is at least one more mezzo who deserves a higher profile than she has, especially in North America, where she is from. Vivica Genaux is the greatest thing to come out of Alaska since, well, Vivica Genaux. You betcha.

She has a rich, soulful voice, sings with sovereign technique, is a beautiful woman with a great figure that meets all the requirements of our High Definition era. And she is an artist. When you read my blog posts, you probably notice that I do not use that word often. Many singers are born with special voices and get good training, but seem to not possess the ability or the inclination to imbue their work with artistry. I find more lower-voiced singers seem to be artists, for reasons I will muse about for a while longer. Of course, I welcome your comments.

Here at the Pfingstfestspiele in Salzburg, the main attraction was Riccardo Muti’s championing of Mercadante’s I Due Figaro, which I wrote about the other day. But I found the real thrill to be Handel’s serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, written for a wedding in Naples in 1708. He used some music from his opera Rinaldo, but I am not complaining. This 90-minute work featured three singers: soprano Sunhae Im (Aci), Genaux (Galatea) and Argentinian bass-baritone Marcos Fink, brother of mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, another candidate for a higher North American profile than she has. Recent concert appearances she has made in New York have been impressive. 

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, taken from a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, was wondrously conducted by René Jacobs and played by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. The performance was ravishing for its emotional depth as well as its amazing music. There was much more cheering for these musicians than those in I Due Figaro, and none more so than for Vivica Genaux. She sings Baroque and Bel Canto, including Rossinian roles that few others can do. Not long ago I expressed my wish to hear Daniela Barcellona as Tancredi at the Met. Genaux recently took on the role at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna and I would happily have both artists alternate in the role in New York. Genaux is a musician’s musician, esteemed by colleagues and admired by discerning audiences who have the good fortune to hear her live.

Listen to an audio recording of Genaux singing "Venti Turbini" from Handel's Rinaldo, and see her in an excerpt from Tancredi:

Photo: Genaux singing on WNYC's Soundcheck (August 11, 2010)