When Dmitri Hvorostovsky made a surprise appearance at the Metropolitan Opera’s 50th anniversary gala in May, taking the stage unsteadily, everyone knew it might be a farewell. Hvorostovsky had, at that point, been battling brain cancer for some two years. And yet many of us clung to the hope he would nonetheless recover, and return to the States for, perhaps, his scheduled appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra next spring. He was certainly still singing magnificently.
But Hvorostovsky died in the early hours of Nov. 22, age 55, leaving a huge hole in the heart of the opera world.
Hvorostovsky was a wonderful singer and an operatic superstar who also managed to be a genuinely good guy. A fixture on the world’s stages, an adornment to countless Metropolitan Opera and Vienna Staatsoper and Covent Garden productions in roles from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin to the Count di Luna in Verdi’s “Trovatore,” he was known for his staggering good looks, his signature mane of prematurely white hair, and a creamy, rich baritone that he produced in superhuman sweeps of breath, punctuated by jagged inhalations after he sang two or three phrases on a single stream of air. He wasn’t a showman, though. I used to wish he would stop “covering” his sound quite so much — singing with rounded, deep beauty, but not adding the extra “ping” for the sake of selling the sound to the audience. He was too elegant a singer, though, to sacrifice beauty for effect.
In a field rife with gossip, Hvorostovsky — after he stopped drinking in 2001 — was known as a good colleague and a good family man, radiantly happy with his second wife, Florence, and their two children, Nina and Maxim. (He also had twins from his first marriage, Daniel and Alexandra.) Born in Siberia, catapulted to fame when he won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989 (beating out Bryn Terfel, who even had home-court advantage), he retained ties to his native country without supporting the political regime, recording albums of Soviet and Russian favorites as well as standard operatic fare. His last recording was a complete “Rigoletto.” It landed on my desk on Tuesday, the day before he died.
In the 1990s, Opera News sent me to Switzerland to review Hvorostovsky’s first “Don Giovanni” — a natural fit for him, at least dramatically. Some productions have difficulty establishing Giovanni’s reputation as a seducer, but in this one, women simply looked at the Don and began disrobing, which seemed entirely plausible. A few years later, I wanted to interview him for a feature on the Opera Orchestra of New York, with whom he was performing Verdi’s “I Masnadieri.” Riding down in the elevator with him after a rehearsal, I complimented him on the “Giovanni,” and then said I would like to talk to him. “Sure,” he said, “just come find me at the Met. I am there a lot the next few weeks.” Somewhat surprised, I asked whether I could make a specific appointment, to which he responded, “Just come find me.” Only after I got out onto the street did I remember that Hvorostovsky had come late to the rehearsal, and had missed the announcement that I was a journalist. Clearly accustomed to having women announce that they had followed him around Europe and the States, he responded to what he must have thought was a total stranger’s random request with the same courtesy and grace that he showed when we subsequently spoke under clearly delineated professional auspices. It’s a grace he manifested even on the last day I saw him onstage in May, when, weakened by his illness, he sang “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” from “Rigoletto,” and was visibly buoyed by the audience’s tear-stained, loving applause.
The Metropolitan Opera is dedicating its four performances of the Verdi Requiem, starting Friday and ending Dec. 2, to the memory of Dmitri Hvorostovsky.