Anne Midgette on Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sondra Radvanovsky at the Kennedy Center

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Evenings of opera arias smack a bit of the circus. Passionate music is presented in greatest-hit snippets, framed by orchestral excerpts: The whole thing is fun and exciting and daredevilish. But it's hard to produce great art on command.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky's joint recital with Sondra Radvanovsky on Monday night at the Kennedy Center, courtesy of Washington Performing Arts Society, certainly matched this description. Hvorostovsky's performances tend to feel like special events, in any case, because of his matinee-idol status. A Siberian baritone with a mane of prematurely white hair, he is marking, this month, the 20th anniversary of his first Kennedy Center performance.

Hvorostovsky is known for a creamy voice and formidable breath control, producing long, smooth streams of sound. The breath control has become something of an end in itself; his singing on Monday was frequently punctuated with audible rough gasps as he filled his lungs between phrases. He also keeps the voice farther back than many singers; this makes it a little hard to hear, and keeps it from ringing out fully in dramatic passages.

At the climax of "Oh, de' verd'anni miei" from Verdi's "Ernani," he almost visibly moved into a higher gear to produce a large, ringing sound. He didn't always engage that gear, though; in "Resta immobile" from Rossini's "William Tell," for instance, he showed what turned out to be a general tendency to sound muted.

Radvanovsky doesn't yet have the marquee presence of Hvorostovsky, but the strength and beauty of her voice Monday suggested she should. I'm not sure there's another soprano today whose vocal endowments are so well suited to the Verdi repertory. She emitted one huge, gleaming top note after another. What holds her back is a lack of precision: Rhythm and diction, the bite of consonants or the fine points of those long decorative runs at an aria's climax, can get mushy.

For much of the program, then, the two singers offered calculated technique and some amazing sounds but not the dramatic engagement or spot-on musicianship to make it fully satisfactory. This was certainly true in the duet from "Simon Boccanegra," in which Radvanovsky even missed a couple of key lines in the moments when the daughter recognizes her long-lost father.

Marco Armiliato conducted with verve and extra clarity -- needed to communicate his intentions to the National Philharmonic Orchestra. The players sounded excited to try out the dramatic overture of "Nabucco," but were also out of their depth, with sloppy entrances, small slips and a tendency to plod. The orchestra is traveling with the two singers to make its Carnegie Hall debut on Thursday; one hopes Monday's performance served to get them in shape for New York.

The second half of the program was better. Radvanovsky offered a fine "Morro, ma prima in grazia" from Verdi's "Ballo in Maschera," and the final duet from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" began to sizzle. The real high point, though, came with the encores.

Radvanovsky announced she would soon do her first "Tosca," then sang a "Vissi d'arte" that was one of the best I've ever heard live, with more emotional engagement and a brilliant climax. And Hvorostovsky, who earlier had dedicated the concert to the victims of the Moscow subway bombings, offered an unaccompanied folk song that was breathtaking: nuanced and skilled, vulnerable and emotional, and sheerly, hauntingly beautiful. It was thrilling to hear him, and Radvanovsky, show what they are capable of.

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