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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
I Vespri Verdiani
Olga Mykytenko (soprano)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. 2019, 02 Guildhall, Southampton
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
CHANDOS CHAN20144 [74:04]

Ukrainian soprano Olga Mykytenko found very early when she started to explore the opera repertoire that ‘certain pieces of music already seemed to exist in my head. Step by step I began to discover and recognise certain arias and, especially, very expressive musical moments which were somehow known to me, as if I had already sung them before.’ These mysterious circumstances are further developed in her autobiographical/philosophical novel Solo OM which was published in Ukraine in 2017. For the present CD, which is her debut recital, she has chosen ‘some of the best repertoire ever written for the soprano’, arias she has been singing for over twenty years since she started her professional career. She adds: ‘In the chosen sequence of these arias, one can trace my gradual development as an opera singer.’

Ms Mykytenko has won several prestigious awards, including the International Maria Callas Grand Prix in Athens in 1997, Second Prize in the Francisco Vi˝as International Singing Competition in Barcelona the same year and First Prize in the Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Oslo in 2003. But even before that she was engaged as a soloist at the National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv from 1995, where she remained until 2003. By then she had already started her international career and appeared in Vienna, St Petersburg, Rome, Salzburg, Hamburg, Savonlinna and Berlin, to mention a few places. In 2007 she made her debut at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she sang Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi. David J. Baker wrote in the July 2007 issue of Opera News: ‘In her house debut, Olga Mykytenko made a real gem of Lauretta's air.’ Lyon, Frankfurt, Essen and Munich followed and now, in her mid-40s, she is certainly well-established.

The programme on this CD is, as mentioned above, a very personal choice and besides several standard works it also includes several arias from less frequently heard operas. The opening one, for instance, I masnadieri (The Robbers), based on Schiller’s play Die Rńuber. This was a commission from Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, where it was premiered on 22 July 1847 with the composer conducting the first two performances and with a starry line-up of singers, headed by the legendary Italian bass Luigi Lablache as Massimiliano and as Amalia the today even more legendary soprano Jenny Lind, whose 200th anniversary is celebrated this year. ‘The Swedish Nightingale’ she was nicknamed, which implies that coloratura was her forte. But she had other qualities as well, which this aria amply demonstrates – since Verdi tailor-made the part for her. The recitative is dramatic, the aria proper requires good legato singing, brilliant top notes and the ability to sing a ravishing pianissimo, while the up-tempo cabaletta leaves scope for some florid virtuoso but not too stratospheric excursions up in the blue. To judge from this aria alone Jenny Lind was a complete artist, and Olga Mykytenko negotiates all these challenges with obvious ease – a qualifying piece of work that bodes well for the rest of the recital: the dramatic power, the legato, the beauty of tone, the brilliance and the coloratura.

The tragic Amelia in Un ballo in maschera was never in Jenny Lind’s repertoire, even though she might well have tackled it, if she had wanted to. She was only 39 when the opera premiered in Rome in 1859, but by then she had already been retired from the stage for ten years. She was still active as a concert singer but rejected every offer to make comeback in the opera house. Otherwise it should have been tempting to take on a role that depicted a compatriot of hers. As is well-known the opera deals with the romantic but innocent affair between King Gustavus III of Sweden and the wife of his best friend, which ends with the king being shot dead at a masked ball in the Royal Castle. In the aria Amelia sings in the third act she bemoans her fate, presages her death but begs that she be allowed to clasp to her breast her only son. It is one of the most touching of Verdi’s arias, the mood has similarities to Desdemona’s aria in the last act of Otello, and Olga Mykytenko sings it inwardly and sensitively.

The third heroine, Leonora in Il trovatore, is in happier mood when she makes her entrance in the first part of the opera. She remembers the unknown warrior she once met at a tournament, but then the civil war came and she never saw him again – until recently he appeared under her balcony, singing to her. Now her heart is intoxicated with love, can’t imagine living without him and, we understand, is expecting him to return. The aria proper is filled with the sweet memories of the sight of him in the light of the full moon, and the cabaletta brims over of expectancy: My destiny can only be fulfilled by being near him … The aria is certainly one of the most beautiful utterances of young love and Olga Mykytenko fills it with warmth.

I vespri siciliani is by some margin the least performed of the mature Verdi operas, i.e. from Rigoletto and onwards. Composed for Paris it rather quickly was translated into Italian, but it never really got a foothold in the standard repertoire. It is still performed and there have been a number of complete recordings, of which I treasure a 1973 RCA issue under James Levine, and a 1990 production from La Scala under Riccardo Muti. The female protagonist Elena has a couple of taxing arias that test both stamina and technique of the singer, one from act IV and one from Act V. The latter, MercÚ, dilette amiche, is the best known and it appears quite often in recitals. Both arias are included here and especially MercÚ is overwhelmingly sung. It doesn’t seem that Ms Mykytenko has sung it in staged performances but she is deeply inside it in every respect.

An even greater rarity is Il corsaro from 1848. Based on Lord Byron’s poem The Corsair and with a libretto by Verdi’s frequent collaborator Francesco Maria Piave, it was premiered in Trieste, but Verdi didn’t attend the premiere and it seems that he wasn’t particularly interested in the whole project. It wasn’t a success and disappeared quickly from the repertoire, and performances were non-existent until the 1960s. Even after that it has popped up only intermittently but there are some recordings, including a studio effort in 1975 in the Philips series with early Verdi under Lamberto Gardelli. Even with the starry trio Jessey Norman, Montserrat CaballÚ and JosÚ Carreras it couldn’t convert the opera houses and the audiences. But as with all Verdi’s operas there is a lot of attractive music, and Medora’s aria from the first act is well worth a listen, especially since Olga Mykytenko sings it so beautifully.

Earlier than both I masnadieri and Il corsario is Attila from 1846. The title character is of course Attila, the King of the Huns, who lived 406 – 453 and during his lifetime conquered large parts of southern Europe and also Persia. Sung by a dramatic bass he personifies the cruelty of his tribe. In the opera Attila finds a group of women as prisoners of war. He is impressed by the courage of their leader, Odabella, and lets her have her sword back. Attila has by his own hand killed Odabella’s father and she plans to revenge him. At the end of the opera she manages to trap him and kills him. The historical relevance is of course dubious, but it is interesting that Verdi focused on brave women. The previous year he had composed Giovanna d’Arco. That opera, by the way, was scheduled to premiere at the Estonian National Opera in Tallinn in May this year with Olga Mykytenko in the title role, but due to the coronavirus the premiere has been postponed. I hope I’ll be able to see it when it hopefully reaches the boards in the autumn. What I’ve heard on this recital promises well. The two arias from Attila are great evidence: the power and temperament of Santo di patria with a lot of florid singing really triggers me, and her involvement in Liberamente or piangi is also a tempting calling-card.

We continue to wander backwards in the Verdi repertoire and reach Ernani, which premiered in 1844. Based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani from 1830, it turned out to be Verdi’s most successful opera until it was superseded by Il trovatore nine years later. In 1904 it was also the first opera to be recorded complete. Elvira’s aria from the first act is one of the best known numbers in the opera and it is a challenge for the singer with wide leaps and roulades and other embellishments, which Olga Mykytenko toss off with elegance and conviction.

Among Verdi’s early operas Macbeth stands out as the darkest and most fearful and the psychotic Lady Macbeth is without doubt the most frightening character in all Verdi. Verdi’s wish was also that the singer of the role should be ‘harsh, stifled and dark’ – the opposite to the bel canto ideals, where the singer strives for beauty of tone and a smooth delivery. Olga Mykytenko’s vocal equipment isn’t directly suited to Verdi’s requirements but she impresses greatly even so through her strength and intensity. The sleepwalking scene is chillingly eerie – achieved more through expression than volume.

The fair an innocent Luisa Miller is certainly the antithesis to Lady Macbeth and her humble prayer to God is sensitively delineated. One can feel a tear in her voice. Mixed feelings are displayed in Violetta’s big aria that concludes the first act of La traviata, but it ends in rapturous joy. Olga Mykytenko catches all this admirably and my only hang-up is that Alfredo is absent. His few but important off-stage phrases add so much to the sense of a live occasion. But this is a minor quibble. Everything else is so satisfying: the quality of the recording, the playing of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the idiomatic conducting of its Chief Conductor since eleven years – he is a prolific conductor of opera – and of course the inspired singing of Olga Mykytenko. With playing time of close to 75 minutes you get a lot of music for your money.

G÷ran Forsling

Previous review: Robert Cummings

I masnadieri (1847):
1. Dall’infame banchetto – Tu del mio Carlo al seno – Carlo vive? [7:09]
Un ballo in maschera (1859):
2. Morr˛, ma prima in grazia [4:13]
Il trovatore (1853):
3. Ne’ tornei! – Tacea la notte placida – Di tale amor [6:28]
I vespri siciliani (1855):
4. Arrigo! Ah! Parli a un core [3:33]
5. MercÚ, dilette amiche [4:07]
Il corsaro (1848):
6. Egli non riede ancora! – Non so le tetre immagini [5:05]
Attila (1846):
7. Santo di patria [4:52]
8. Liberamente or piangi [5:11]
Ernani (1844):
9. Surta Ŕ la notte – Tutto sprezzo, che d’Ernani [7:10]
Macbeth (1847):
10. Nel dý della vittoria – Or tutti sorgete [7:33]
11. Una macchia Ŕ qui tuttora [7:22]
Luisa Miller (1849):
12. Tu puniscimi, o signore [2:56]
La traviata (1853):
13. ╚ strano! – Ah, forse Ŕ luý – Follie! ... follie! – Sempre libera [7:24]

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