The Russian Soul of Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Monday, December 12, 2016 - 02:41 PM

Dmitri Hvorostovsky at the curtain call for the September 25 performance of Verdi's 'Il Trovatore' Dmitri Hvorostovsky has stopped opera performances to dedicate himself to treatment for a brain tumor. (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

The news came on Dec. 8 that the beloved baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky has withdrawn from all scheduled future opera performances to dedicate himself to treatment for a brain tumor, which had begun when the tumor was diagnosed in June 2015. This seemed to have been a coordinated announcement because an email came to me from the Vienna State Opera at 11 a.m., and those from the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera House in London arrived at 11:02 a.m. They contained the following statement:

To all my friends, fans and colleagues: 
It is with great sadness that I must withdraw from opera performances for the foreseeable future.
I have been experiencing balance issues associated with my illness, making it extremely difficult for me to perform in staged productions.
I will continue to give concerts and recitals as well as make recordings. Singing is my life, and I want to continue bringing joy to people worldwide.
With this pause in my operatic career and more rest in between each engagement, I hope to have more time to focus on my health and treatment.
Thank you for all your love, messages and well wishes. Your support is felt and means the world to me.
With love,

I am among Hvorostovsky’s millions of admirers who wish him well. 

As an artist, he has faced a particular challenge that many of his colleagues would find enviable. He has a beautiful voice, is a glorious singer who always goes deep emotionally and musically, and whose breath control has enabled him to spin out bolts of gorgeous sound that is beautiful unto itself, but also has meaning in the context of the aria or song he is performing. 

The “challenge” he has faced is that he is also very handsome and charismatic. Many of his fans who are not attuned to his exquisite musicianship have had the habit of cheering after every song when he appears in concert singing deep, dark song cycles by Russian composers. The same happens to his equally glamorous, free-spirited and hard-working colleague Anna Netrebko, with whom he often appears

The difference between the baritone and Netrebko is that Hvorostovsky, from the very start of his career, has gone deep in terms of choice of song literature that speaks of the Russian soul. I should add that he is a marvelous singer of Italian repertory, especially Verdi, and it is his soulfulness that makes characters such as Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera so memorable.

I have long noticed, and admired, that many Russian singers are very passionate in their engagement with music and text, especially from their homeland. Theirs is a fascinating and frustrating country, one with deep reserves of emotion that surface in its literature and performing arts. While Russia’s political issues have been and continue to be, shall we say, mind-boggling, its people have long shown a stunning amount of patience and courage in the face of extreme adversity. “The Russian people” as depicted in operas such as Boris Godunov are the real heroes of these masterpieces.

Hvorostovsky’s talent was evident from the beginning, as was his soulfulness. In 1989 he won the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition (none other than Bryn Terfel placed second). When he sang Yeletsky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spadeshe already displayed his soulful lyricism and prodigious breath control. Fourteen years later, in costume for the same role at a performance in St. Petersburg conducted by Valery Gergiev, he brought much more to this aria, as one would expect from artists who continually strive to grow and deepen their connection to music, words and audiences.

One of his greatest performances (and also of Renée Fleming’s) came when they appeared at the Met in the beautiful Robert Carsen production of Eugene Onegin. Watch them in rehearsalin a conversation with Beverly Sills and in the performance in the garden scene. Now watch the final scene, ignoring the French subtitles and focusing on their artistry.

In recital, each song he sings is a story told (even if you do not have the benefit of translation), whether in GlinkaMussorgsky or Shostakovich. Another composer he has advocated for is Georgy Sviridov, whose “Russia Cast Adrift” is inimitably connected to Hvorostovsky.

Last April he sang “Ochi Chernye” (Dark Eyes) at the Konzerthaus in Vienna. He also recently sang his very moving and patriotic song, “Katyusha”. Notice how, in the latter song, the audience is engaged with his performance.

I did not know of a song called “Cranes” that Hvorostovsky recently sang so soulfully. It was made famous by a Soviet-era actor and singer named Mark Bernes (1911-1969). The lyrics for “Cranes” are based on a poem by the Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov, who visited the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima and was moved by the story of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who feverishly folded origami peace cranes while dying of the effects of radiation from the bombing on Aug. 6, 1945. 

Gamzatov’s poem was translated into Russian by Naum Grebnyov and was read by Bernes, who adapted the poem into lyrics for music to be composed by Yan Frenkel. When the song was finished, Bernes was deeply moved, in part because he identified with some of what it expressed. He was ill with cancer and died a week after this recording was released. Listen to it first as performed by Bernes, listening to the music and reading the text in translation. Then watch Hvorostovsky’s performance of this song, with the knowledge of its back story and significance and you will understand why the audience was so deeply moved. 

Dima, as Hvorostovsky is known to his colleagues, is beloved for his playful, sometimes mischievous, spontaneity and unpredictability. Watch a conversation I had with him in 2012 when he was a guest at my series, Adventures in Italian Opera at the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò of New York University. He often speaks softly, so you might have trouble making out some of what he said, but this conversation gives you a full sense of his natural charm, his edgy demeanor and the seriousness of his devotion to his art.


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Comments [7]

aurelia from USA

If he indeed had pneumonia, I sure hope that it's been cured and that he is back home again and well.

Feb. 02 2017 02:08 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Bad news. Dima has been taken to the hospital with pneumonia(?)

Dec. 20 2016 02:14 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

again, Thank you Fred. Facebook has postings from Dima's return to the concert stage in Moscow with Alvarez, etc. He sang Dark Eyes, Parlami d'amore Mariu, trio from Trovatore.
Best wishes

Dec. 14 2016 05:30 PM
Petra from Munich

Thank you so much for this article, with which I could not agree more, and for including the wonderful interview, which is so much fun to watch. I was lucky to see several of Dmitri's performances in Europe this year, which gave me so much joy and which I will remember forever. I sincerely hope and pray he will fully recover and be able to give many more of his truly memorable performances.

Dec. 14 2016 02:34 PM
Sonja Staron from Dallas, Texas

Dear Fred Plotkin: All of us thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your kind and beautifully written - and yes - soulful, narrative about one of the most beloved singers of this century. I join you in, rather than bemourning illness, remaining hopeful that modern medicine will restore Hvorostovsky's balance and wellbeing. His voice will continue to be with us for generations to come. Likewise, I, we, wish you a blessed holiday season and we are looking forward to many more of your marvellously insightful articles.

Dec. 13 2016 12:37 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Fine article, thanks
I am saddened for Dima's illness and hope he will be cured.
Wonderful singing actor, gorgeous voice.
He also sings in perfect Neapolitan. Not that easy. There are Italian singers who cannot get it right.
Best wishes

Dec. 13 2016 07:18 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

I am crestfallen that Hvorostovsky isn't able to continue in opera at this time -- and am hoping for a miracle that will bring him back.

His live embodiments of Simon Boccanegra at the Met still give me chills -- in quiet I can close my eyes and summon his powerful sound and physical presence in that role.

Dec. 12 2016 03:52 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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