Unsung Singers (Part Two): Vivica Genaux

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - 08:50 PM

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)


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Comments [7]

Michael Meltzer

I d;on't suppose you can list every mezzo-soprano who ever gave credit to the designation, but Anne Sofie von Otter is conspicuous in her absence from your list. She has a voice of great beauty and purity.
In his recent Brahms program, Kent Tritle aired the Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer op. 52's featuring Ms. von Otter and Barbara Bonney. I was struck by how perfectly matched their voices were, like a Stadivarius violin and a Stradivarius viola.

Jun. 17 2011 04:24 AM
meche from MIMA

What a privilege it was to witness Ms. Genaux's extraordinary performance some years back at the Weill Recital Hall. She literally took my breath away. When I met her afterward at Caramoor, where I got to hear her Rossini, she indeed was most gracious and charming. Count me in as one of her devoted fans.

Jun. 16 2011 03:27 PM
Mathew Hall from Chagrin Falls, OH

Vivica Genaux has been part of my operatic consciousness from the beginning of my appreciation for the art. There is a clear versatility and musical intelligence that we don't always see in singers - especially since we seem to live in a world where singers are a dime a dozen. Not only she extraordinary in Rossini as a damsel, her trouser roles are masterfully done. Nothing is overactive or in any way precious. Furthermore, her assumption of a broad spectrum of Baroque roles should have, all alone, made her a huge superstar. The recordings she has made for EMI/Virgin illustrate as much; and the private recordings (like her Marc Antony in Hasse's opera) give us greater access into her live performances. It is a shame that many American fans have to resort to Youtube to see and hear some of her greatest roles. Brava Vivica!

Jun. 15 2011 11:07 PM

And she's a nice person, too!

Jun. 15 2011 08:53 PM
Brandon Lucas from North Carolina

I have had the pleasure of hearing her as Rosina in Barbiere and Angelina in Cenerentola here in my native NC. She is gorgeous onstage and her technique is 2nd to none. I don't think I have ever heard a better Rosina (other then Horne and Genaux's comic timing was a lot more natural). This is a singer who deserves to be seen and HEARD!!!

Jun. 15 2011 05:18 PM
William V. Madison from New York City

Vivica holds a special place in my own gallery of favorite mezzos, and like the commenter above, I've also found her to be a lovely, thoughtful person.

But I've been living abroad for a while, so I'm surprised to think of her as "unsung." She's got solo albums on a major label, and she regularly performs at major houses (albeit not at the Met, lately). Is she really so little known in the States?

Well, I dare say that even in households (like mine) where hers is a household name, she deserves greater attention. Thanks for calling (or recalling) her to ours.

Jun. 15 2011 02:55 PM
Devon Estes from New York, NY

I could not agree more. As a mezzo-lover myself, I've admired Vivica for a good long while. We shared a voice teacher for a few years, so I got to spend some time with her and found her to be not only an amazing artist, but one of the sweetest women I've ever met.

And if you think her coloratura is impressive in performance, you should hear her warmups!

Jun. 15 2011 10:18 AM

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