Hvorostovsky, Radvanovsky and Verdi, at the Kennedy Center

At least twice last night, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky drew a finger across his brow after singing, as if to wipe off a little bit of sweat, as if to remind the public that the great stream of dark, smooth sounds he has been making for more than twenty years takes real work. I first heard Hvorostovsky the year after he won the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. He appeared at Alice Tully Hall–a famous recital, a genuine New York event–and wowed a rapt crowd of critics, managers, publicists, envious opera stars and the rest of us, lucky to get in to an unforgettable performance.  Few singers have given me more pleasure, and while Hvorostovsky is now in his late 40s, he still has all the old power if not 100 percent of the old effortlessness.

Hvorostovsky appeared at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, in a program of arias and duets, mostly by Verdi, but with a show-stopping finale from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” thrown in. It was good fun, an evening of unhinged singing that revealed Radvanovsky in a new light. She has a major Verdi voice, from top to bottom, and she isn’t afraid to use it. There are quirks here and there, such as her tendency to scoop into notes for dramatic and expressive effect, and some odd breaks in the line (hard not to notice when singing next to Hvorostovsky, who is famous for his endless column of air). But none of these mattered compared to the overall effect: A soprano singing Verdi on the razor’s edge of disaster.

Together, in scenes from Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” and “Un ballo in maschera,” the two artists have genuine chemistry. Hvorostovsky had to melt with paternal affection in his recognition scene with the “Boccanegra” Amelia and thunder with bloodthirsty intent in Renato’s confrontation with the “Un ballo in maschera” Amelia. He has mastered the spectrum of masculinity as articulated by 19th century melodrama, and with the slightest shading or a hint of nasal tone, he can turn from husband to brute, from paternalism to sinister bullying. But Radvanovsky more than held her own, with a substantial lower register and a top that is occasionally calculated but nevertheless thrilling.

Who brought them together? And why were they singing with the National Philharmonic, a local orchestra that has been growing (and sounds much better than I remember them from almost ten years ago) but isn’t quite at the level one might expect with two such stars on the program? It seems the singers met at the Met, when the baritone went backstage to compliment the soprano after hearing her in “Il Trovatore.” On April 1, they will bring their joint act, apparently forged in friendship, to Carnegie Hall, the last stop on a national tour.

That doesn’t explain the hook-up with the National Philharmonic, which sounded generally solid and professional under the baton of Marco Armiliato, but struggled at times to provide that invisible, but adamantine, rhythmic foundation upon which so much of Verdi’s music is constructed.

I heard Armiliato at the Met on Saturday night conducting the last of a run of Verdi’s “Attila.” Early Verdi (and though “Attila” was his ninth opera, it still qualifies as early) is more difficult to make meaningful than mature Verdi. When he premiered “Attila” in 1846, Verdi was still an interesting but constrained mid 19th-century composer, not the definitive master of Italian opera he would become only a few years later (with “Luisa Miller”? Or “Rigoletto”?). Armiliato, however, knows how to make early Verdi as creditable as anything by Rossini or Bellini or Donizetti, and his “Attila” was a delight.

Much of the music heard last night falls into the same general period as “Attila,” including the overtures to “Nabucco” (1842) and “Louisa Miller” (1849) and two arias from “Ernani” (1844). The “Nabucco” overture and “Ernani” excerpts didn’t show the ensemble at its finest. Here and there you could hear weaker players diminishing the collective effort, and when it came time for Verdi’s characteristic harder-than-it-sounds repetitive accompaniment figures, often they were cumbersome, and the singers sounded uncomfortable and awkward. Early Verdi is fragile stuff.

But the orchestra rose to occasion with bigger music, and by the time the two soloists came together for a scene from “Boccanegra,” the accompaniment was no longer an obtrusive presence, but a genuine psychological mirror to the shifting emotions of the drama. Some rhythmic difficulties in the introduction to the Tchaikovsky scene, an occasional solo line with noticeable flaws, and some sour violin intonation in the intermezzo from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” kept reminding one that they have work to do. But from the end of the first half of the program until the end of the concert, they transcended themselves and one is inclined to give credit both to Armiliato and the infectious high spirits of the evening.

The title role of Tchaikovsky’s “Onegin” is just about perfect for Hvorostovsky, who is handsome, has a seductive voice and knows how to send a soupcon of sneer to the back of the opera house. I interviewed Hvorostovsky once, and found him immensely personable and pleasant. But on stage, no one captures the frigid egotism of Onegin better, in part because Hvorostovsky has the astonishing ability to make simple, uninflected, unemotional singing sound like the height of haughty indifference.

It was a pleasure to hear it all once again, paired with Radvanovsky’s desperate but determined Tatiana. It earned the singers two encores. Radvanovsky previewed her upcoming Tosca in Denver with a very promising “Vissi d’arte,” and Hvorostovsky sang an unaccompanied Russian folksong, just as he did the night I first heard him in New York two decades ago. It sent chills down my spine then, and it did again last night.

The concert was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society and was dedicated, by Hvorostovsky, to the victims of Monday’s dreadful subway bombing.

Photo by Pavel Antonov courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society

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