Celebrated Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova sings ten arias here. This selection is supplemented by two orchestral items: the haunting Prelude to Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame” and, providing a cheerful and rousing conclusion to an otherwise sombre recital, the “Dance of the Skomorokhi” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Snow Maiden”. They serve to underline the warmth and virtuosity of the Baden-Baden orchestra under Pavel Baleff. They provide the singer with exemplary support throughout and are served with equally commendable recorded sound. The first half of that Prelude is played with such tender affection before the orchestra generates real tension and excitement in the dramatic conclusion.
Kasarova has long been hailed as an exceptional singer. She commands a contralto’s heft in her lower register with a spinto soprano’s brilliance and vibrancy up top. She has retained the flexibility to sing Mozart and bel canto roles but those accomplishments are not required here. These arias are, for the most part, doleful and soulful and thus typically Russian. An exception is the folksy, upbeat aria from Dargomyzhsky’s more rarely heard “Stone Guest”. Not all the arias here are staple fare. In addition to the latter, we hear Joan of Arc’s aria, very powerfully delivered, from the Tchaikovsky opera, Lyubasha’s Monologue, mostly sung a cappella with haunting simplicity, from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tsar’s Bride”, and the aria for Vanya – the only trouser-role here - from Glinka’s “Ivan Susanin”. That might not be the strongest number but it is nonetheless welcome when it is performed with sturdy commitment by Kasarova in such steady, flowing voice.
Indeed, everything here is sung beautifully and to the highest standard. Polina’s aria from “Pique Dame” is like a representative microcosm of 19th century Russian opera in general, as it moves from the overt melancholy of her “Grave Song” to the tripping jollity of the bridal folk-song. Kasarova’s dusky voice is ideal for conveying the dark, doom-laden beauty of Marfa’s Song from “Khovanshchina”. She then immediately displays her versatility by switching to portray the flighty, slightly hysterical Laura. She excels in depicting the many flawed or tormented characters here, such as the thoughtless Olga from “Eugene Onegin” and the weary, embittered old Countess from “Pique Dame”, sung with great depth of tone and in excellent French. She also conveys the steely self-absorption of the vain and ruthless Marina from “Boris Godunov”, even to the extent of turning her concluding laughter into almost a cackle to signal her essential unattractiveness.
This programme of arias abounds in gorgeous melodies but my personal favourite is Konchakovna’s Aria from Borodin’s “Prince Igor”, where Kasarova exploits her burnished lower register to convey the sensuality of the music, with its slithering chromaticism and passionate melismata.
This is an artist recorded when not yet fifty and very much at the height of her vocal powers. Ralph Moore Track-List
1. MUSSORGSKY Khovanshchina, Act II: Sili potayniye, sili velikiye 5:18
2. DARGOMYZHSKY The Stone Guest, Act I: Odelas tumanom Grenada 2:02
3. TCHAIKOVSKY Eugene Onegin, Op. 24, Act I: Akh, Tanya, Tanya 3:42
4. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV The Tsar's Bride: Tsarskaya nevesta (The Tsar's Bride), Act I: Snaryzhai skorei, matushka rodimaya 4:30
5. TCHAIKOVSKY The Queen of Spades, Op. 68, TH 10: Act I: Prelude 4:29
6. TCHAIKOVSKY The Queen of Spades, Op. 68, TH 10: Act I: Ya spoyu lyubimy'i svoi roman 5:46
7. TCHAIKOVSKY The Queen of Spades, Op. 68, TH 10: Act II: Akh, postyl mne etot svet! 6:39
8. GLINKA A Life for the Tsar, Op. 4: Zhizn' za tsarya (A Life for the Tsar), Op. 4, Act IV: Bedniy kon' v polye pal (The poor horse fell in the field) 7:01
9. TCHAIKOVSKY The Maid of Orleans, Op. 4, Act II: Da, chas nastal! Dolzhna provinovatsa nebesnomu velen'yu Ioanna 6:34
10. BORODIN Prince Igor (Knyaz Igor), Act II: Merknet svet dnevnoy (Daylight fades) 5:19
11. MUSSORGSKY Boris Godunov, Act III: Marina's Aria - Skuchno Marinye 4:01
12. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV The Snow Maiden: Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden): Dance of the Tumblers 3:51