In April of 2015, back when I was writing for Examiner.com, I had the good fortune to have my attention directed to a Delos recording of what, at the time, I declared to be the “most fascinating opera” that Giuseppe Verdi ever wrote. The opera was Simon Boccanegra, and it would be fair to say that the narrative is more sophisticated than any of the Verdi operas that were inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare. At the time I felt well prepared to write about this recording, having had the good fortune to attend the 2008 production of this opera by the San Francisco Opera (SFO), imported from the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, where it had been staged by Elijah Moshinsky. The title role was taken by the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, performing with Barbara Frittoli in the role of Boccanegra’s daughter Amelia.
Both Hvorostovsky and Frittoli reprised their respective roles for the Delos project. The music director was Constantine Orbelian, leading the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and the Kaunas State Choir. Both of these ensembles, as well as their director, were unknown to me when I started listening to the recording. By the time I was done, I was eager to listen to further recordings of Orbelian’s skills.
This past Friday, November 10, Delos released another opportunity to listen the Orbelian ply his skills, once again with a Verdi opera and with Hvorostovsky as his leading vocalist. This time the opera was the much more familiar Rigoletto. Listening to this recording should be enough to convince anyone that lightning can strike twice in the same place (even those not quite sure of where Kaunas is)!
Given Hvorostovsky’s recent history, it would probably be a good idea to begin by discussing the timing of the project. All of the recording sessions took place at the Kaunas Philharmonic (but not during performances) between July 1 and July 9 of 2016. Those aware of the baritone’s recent past know that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in June of 2015. However, on May 8 of this year, Hvorostovsky made a “surprise return” (as The New York Times headline put it) to perform in the gala concert produced to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. Relevant to the latest Delos release, Hvorostovsky used the occasion to sing “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” (courtiers, damn you all) from the second act of Rigoletto. According to General Manager Peter Gelb, Hvorostovsky’s doctors were encouraging him to keep singing; but Gelb also acknowledged that the baritone’s health was “unpredictable.”
Bearing in mind that recording sessions may have been organized around Hvorostovsky’s personal schedule, there is certainly no sign of his weakness on this new Delos release. As had been the case with the Boccanegra recording, his musical technique was consistently solid and just as consistently reinforced by expressive technique that reflected the Rigoletto narrative. Nevertheless, it is worth observing that, from a point of view of familiar vocal work, the “main attraction” of the first act does not come from Rigoletto but from his daughter Gilda. No one wants to listen to a recording of Rigoletto with a weak “Caro nome!”
It is thus important to recognize that the contributions of soprano Nadine Sierra to this recording are as significant as those of Hvorostovsky. At this point I have to offer up a personal disclaimer, because much of Sierra’s career potential was forged in my home town of San Francisco. She became a SFO Adler Fellow in January 2011 and sang in the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier the following May. Returning to her “home turf” (she is a native of Fort Lauderdale), she sang her first Gilda with the Florida Grand Opera in January of 2012.
Sierra thus brought over four years of experience with the role to Orbelian’s recording sessions. The result was that she delivered not only “Caro nome” but also the entire role with just the right combination of technical skills and expressive fireworks to make even the most jaded listener sit up and take notice. This recording is, indeed, “one for the books,” leading those who have now fallen under Orbelian’s spell to wonder when the next bolt of lightning will strike.