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Stars of the Bolshoi Theatre
Elena Obraztsova (mezzo)
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Boris Khaikin, Mark Ermler, Odysseas Dimitriadi, Algis Juraitis
rec. 1965-87. ADD
MELODIYA MELCD1002299 [72:44]

This compilation covering twenty-two years in the recording career of Russian Bolshoi star, mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova, serves as a timely memorial to an artist who died only last January, aged 75.

A “home-grown diva”, she was fiercely patriotic and remembered not only for her magnificent voice but also for signing in 1974 the letter condemning star soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and her celebrated cellist husband Mstislav Rostropovich for their support for Alexander Solzhenitsyn; they had essentially defected that year.

Hers was never the most beautiful of voices; in many ways she resembles the great Belgian mezzo Rita Gorr in the unyielding, rather metallic edge to her sound. The sheer weight and strength of her voice, especially its trenchant lower register, were not to all tastes, but its huge volume and its possessor’s powerful stage presence permitted her to dominate the world stage in the most demanding mezzo roles during the 1970s and 1980s. Her sound is intrinsically vibrant with quite a broad oscillation within her vibrato but no wobble. Her top A and B flat, and even a top B in Eboli’s aria, are secure, if a tad strident, but that is probably more the result of the engineering which has failed to remove some distortion on the loudest, highest notes.

The majority of recordings here are from when she was in freshest, most youthful voice; in recordings from the later stages of her career a certain leatheriness creeps into what was a fairly coarse but always exciting tone. The recording dates for tracks 8 and 14 are not provided, but as they are conducted by Mark Ermler and Obraztsova’s voice sounds youthful there, we may perhaps assume that they were made between 1968 and 1970 when she recorded the other items with that conductor. Pauline’s Romance is clearly a studio recording, whereas track 14 is from a live concert.

The preponderance of this anthology is devoted to arias by the three greatest Russian opera composers but we also hear some of the “Big Bow-wow” mezzo roles from works by Western composers. The sequence of nine Russian arias culminates in a gripping performance of the Countess’s scene from “Pique Dame” which is also the longest item on the disc. I would not say that Kashcheyevna’s aria from "Kashchey the Deathless” – more usually known as “the Immortal” - would feature at the top of most people’s list of favourite Russian arias but it’s nice to hear a rarity or two. It is also good to hear the singer lighten her sound to sing Lyubasha’s song from “The Tsar’s Bride” more delicately. Some other arias are decidedly lacking in elegance. Delilah’s aria is sung in plummy French and lacks the necessary Gallic suavity; there are rather too many gear-changes and raucous tones in the middle of the voice to render it wholly seductive. It must also be said that the last item, Carmen’s most famous aria sung in concert in 1987, does little honour either to the memory of Obraztsova or Bizet’s music; it is loud and blowsy, with little allure or subtlety.

No; it is to the earlier recordings that we must turn if we are to appreciate the unique attack, amplitude and intensity of a voice-type increasingly rare today.
Ralph Moore

Recording details
1. Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY - Joan's Aria (The Maid of Orleans)
2. Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV - Kascheyevna's aria (Kashchey the Deathless)
3. Modest MUSSORGSKY - Marfa's Divination (Khovanshchina)
4. Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV - Lyubasha's Song (The Tsar's Bride)
5. Modest MUSSORGSKY - Marina's Aria (Boris Godunov)
6-7. Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV - Lel's Third Song (The Snow Maiden); Lubava's Scene and Aria (Sadko)
8-9. Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY - Pauline's romance (The Queen of Spades); Countess' Scene and Romance (The Queen of Spades)
10. Gaetano DONIZETTI - Leonora's Aria (La Favorita)
11. Camille SAINT-SANS - Delilah's Aria "Mon coeur s'ouvre ta voix" (Samson and Delilah)
12-13. Giuseppe VERDI - Eboli's aria (Don Carlos); Azucena's song (Il Trovatore)
14. Jules MASSENET - Charlotte's aria (Werther)
15. Georges BIZET - Carmen's Habanera (Carmen)

Conductor: Boris Khaikin (1-4), Mark Ermler (5-9, 14), Odysseas Dimitriadi (10-12), Algis Juraitis (13,15)
rec. 1965 (1-3; 10-12); 1966 (4); 1968 (5-7); 1970 (9); 1987 (13,15)

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