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Oksana Volkova (mezzo-soprano)
Poison d'Amour
Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Constantine Orbelian
rec. May 2019, Kaunas State Philharmonic, Lithuania
Sung texts with English translations included.
DELOS DE3584 [63:50]

When I requested this CD, I thought that the singer was another of the up-and-coming young singers from the former Soviet block who have so enriched the operatic world since the Berlin Wall came down. However I was only half right. She is from a former Soviet country (Minsk in Belarus) but made her debut with the Belarussian National Opera in 2002. She has sung all over the world, but the generality is that she sings big roles in small houses and small roles in big houses. I discovered that I had heard her as Olga in Evgeny Onegin at Covent Garden in 2016, though I have no memory of her (not really her fault - Olga is hardly a scene-stealing role). She sang Madalena in Hvorostovsky’s recording of Rigoletto (also for Delos and also conducted by Orbelian - review), but this is her first solo recital.

The first thing to be said is that it is a splendid voice. The tone is rich and rounded with not a hint of wobble, and without any of the stridency that could affect so many female singers in Soviet times. She also has a wide range, including a superb top B-flat at the end of the Sapho aria, and a highly effective chest register on display on several tracks, though she never abuses it in the way that Obratsova sometimes did. Her legato is also exemplary most of the time. You may already have seen “but” heaving into view. Many Victorian families had embroidered and framed biblical texts hung in prominent places in their homes, and all singers should have one of these, the text being “In the Beginning was the Word”. I am again going to have to complain about a lack of engagement with the text which leads to the essential emotion and communicative point of the music being diminished.

The recital consists of a mixture of French and Russian arias, with a couple of Italian arias for variety. The first track is of an aria which I consider to be an absolute copper-bottomed masterpiece: “O ma lyre immortelle” from Gounod’s Sapho. This glorious outpouring, which is the finale of the opera, is an aria of despair from an abandoned lover, ending in her suicide. Volkova has exactly the right vocal timbre for the piece, and has the requisite top and bottom. She moulds the line very musically and never does anything ugly, but she doesn’t fully engage with the situation. The baleful, low-lying first line of the aria itself (O ma lyre immortelle qui dans les triste jours) needs an even darker colour than Volkova provides. The tone colour should change when the line rises in pitch and Sapho remembers how her lyre had always been a consolation in earlier troubled times (a tous mes maux fidèle les consolait toujours). A more passionate expression should follow as she admits that it cannot help her now (En vain ton doux murmure veut m’aider à souffrir). In the succeeding line the voice descends again as her fate weighs more and more heavily upon her until the concluding “ma douleur” which requires a sepulchral chest voice. Volkova is certainly not insensitive to this, and her legato is most beautiful, but she is not sufficiently attentive to the subtly but constantly changing emotions because she does not use the text as she should. Her tone colour and approach are essentially the same throughout. I have spent so much time on this aria because it exemplifies the recital as a whole, and there is no point in labouring the same points over and over again. Ultimately every aria is approached in basically the same way, and as a result they sound far too much alike; Carmen’s “Seguidilla” should be as chalk to Sapho’s cheese, but here it isn’t.

I had hoped that in the Russian items there would be much more attention to the text and much clearer diction, and there is to an extent, but it is not significantly better. Long ago, when I first started writing reviews, I discovered a very useful way of checking the quality of a singer’s diction in a vaguely objective way. It came about when I wanted to jot down a point for use in the review while listening to the CD: if you can’t find your place again in the text booklet after looking away for 10 or 15 seconds, then the diction is not good enough. This is especially the case for the 99% of us who have no Russian (or Czech or... name your language), so cannot even use the remnants of school French or German to help. Even in the French arias on this CD, I found on several occasions that I could not easily find my place again.

I think the tracks that I enjoyed most were the “O vagabonda stella” section of “Acerba volutà” from Adriana Lecouvreur (her excellent legato is ideal in this), Marfa’s Divination from Khovanshchina (the richness of the tone and hieratic quality suit the prophetic utterance) and the aria from Smolsky’s The Grey Legend. This piece was entirely new to me, and though composed in 1978, if someone had told me that the correct date was actually 1878, I wouldn’t have been too surprised. Musically cutting edge it certainly ain’t, and I would find it difficult to argue against anyone who dismissed it as just film music, but I found it very enjoyable and quite memorable, as well as being beautifully sung.

The orchestral contribution exactly matches the vocal one. The playing is very fine and Orbelian conducts perfectly well and with sensitivity. However, to go back to the Sapho aria, in the introduction to the aria itself, Gounod achieves the most wonderful sonority by scoring it for cor anglais and horn in unison over a sea of harp arpeggios. This melody is characterised by a descending dotted quaver - semiquaver rhythm which represents Sapho’s descent into despair. The semiquaver is the most important note and needs much more weight than Orbelian gives it, leaving the phrase under-characterised. Gounod was a master of the second verse string countermelody, and the one in this aria is one of his greatest. Its passionate lyricism adds immeasurably to the emotion of the vocal line, but here it is far too reticent, verging on the merely pretty. Similarly, in the introduction to Massenet’s “Pleurez mes yeux”, the wonderful clarinet solo ends with a fast, rising arpeggio conveying Chimène’s anguish, but more could have been made of it here.

The booklet deserves some high praise, especially in comparison to what has been provided in some of the complete operas I have reviewed recently. There are detailed biographies of all participants, including the orchestra. More importantly, we have not only full texts and English translations but a clear and comprehensive context for each aria within its opera. The only thing I would beg of Delos is that they make the texts and translations parallel rather than one underneath the other. Flipping the eyes between the two makes for particular difficulties in the Russian items, especially where the Russian and English end up on different pages.

I hope that I have not left too negative an impression in this review. It is a very enjoyable recital by a singer with a most impressive voice. It is true that none of the tracks would end up as favourite versions of any excerpt, but my reservation are the result of using the highest standards in assessing it, and the whole makes for a good, varied programme.

Paul Steinson

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Ralph Moore

Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
1. Sapho - O ma lyre immortelle
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
2. Samson et Dalila - Printemps qui commence
3. Samson et Dalila - Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix
Dmitry SMOLSKY (or SMOLSKI) (1937-2017)
4. The Gray Legend (Sedaya Legenda) - Ti pripomni jak lotaz kalisti u lugah mi zbirali
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)
5. Mignon - Connais-tu le pays
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
6. Sadko - Vsyu noch zhdala ego ya poraprasnu
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
7. Werther - Va! Laisse couler mes larmes
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
8. The Maid of Orleans - Prostite vi, kholomi, polia rodniye
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
9. Carmen - Seguidilla
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
10. Khovanshchina - Sily potainye
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
11. Cavalleria Rusticana - Voi lo sapete o mamma
12. Le Cid - Pleurez! Pleurez mes yeux
Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)
13. Adriana Lecouvreur - Acerba voluttà

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