A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

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On Friday, Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater reopened after several years of construction to a grand-scale level of pomp (which included a live-feed that the company broadcast over its YouTube account). Today, fat white flakes have blanketed the city in an unseasonably early snowfall.

And at the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra has welcomed back both music director emeritus Kurt Masur and Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus. Tenuous, perhaps, but after hearing Masur and Leiferkus present Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar,” Friday night (first sung on Thursday, they repeat the program tonight), snow seemed like the only logical thing to wake up to this morning.

At 65, Leiferkus is one of those sorts who looks and sounds 20 years younger. Offstage, he’s not a Hvorostovsky-ian or Netrebko-esque sort with a supernatural bearing that screams “star singer,” and he seems fine with that, more content to be an operatic workhorse than the face of Rolex. When I interviewed him earlier this March during his run as a (glowering and devilish) Rangoni in the Dallas Opera’s mounting of late film director Andrei Tarkovsky’s landmark Boris Godunov, he praised the company’s administrative and artistic staff, but also made mention of a delicious homemade soup once prepared by his host family and his admiration of the blooming azaleas.

Onstage, however, Leiferkus is all business. Over 40 years in the business have left him with a substantial repertoire accrued over time (last year he told MusicalCriticism.com that he was dubbed “Iron Leiferkus” at the Kirov in his native St. Petersburg on account of his singing up to twelve performances a month, among numerous other duties). His is a definitive Iago on the Domingo-Studer recording of Verdi’s Otello for Deutsche Grammophon and his performances in Toscas past have reminded audiences of why Baron Scarpia is so menacingly terrifying.

But it’s the Russian rep that Leiferkus owns. In some ways he bears a similarity to compatriots Dmitri Hvorostovsky or Anna Netrebko: A Russian proponent of Russian composers can be as thrilling to hear as a Brit do Shakespeare, a combination of native-born sense and sensibility. Leiferkus is well-represented on the Chandos label with Rachmaninoff songs and has definitive performances on the Kirov’s recording of Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel, as Tomsky alongside Vladimir Atlantov and Mirella Freni (and, yes, Dmitri Hvorostovsky) in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame and singing Shostakovich’s orchestral songs for the yellow label.

Leiferkus studied under Shostakovich and still performs “Babi Yar” like he’s the late Soviet composer’s representation on earth (he sang it with the Phil almost 10 years ago, also under Masur in one of his sadly infrequent stopovers in New York). The score starts in Leiferkus's face, furrowing from the brow into his eye creases and sitting in his cheekbones before slithering into his jaw. The visual and sonic landscape of the work resides in Leiferkus, infusing an unsettling childlike note when singing of Anne Frank, practically whispering the bombastically-noted “booming” and blending seamlessly with the equally omnipotent men of the New York Vocal Chorus.

Unlike the forced Siegfried next door, here there was nothing literal; everything was natural. In the first dystopian and despotic movement, Leiferkus stood strapping and fearless, like General Kutuzov at the onset of the Battle of Borodino, progressing into a Mephistophelean drinking song in “Humor” (a movement cut from the same cloth as Shostakovich’s Fourth Sympohony), slinking into the stature of a Russian Umberto D during “In the Store,” turning even wearier in “Fears” before turning sage and sardonic in “A Career.” Aided in no small part by Masur (who trembled as he took the podium but conducted with a firm and judicious hand), he was the concrete among the haunting abstracts of Shostakovich and poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

Unsurprisingly, the audience went wild.

Sound off: Which singers do you admire but feel are criminally underrepresented? Leave your picks in the comments below.