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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]

This is Belarusian mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova’s first solo album and it is immediately noticeable that her repertoire is predominantly French, as seven of the thirteen arias here are from French operas, followed by four in Russian. Both traditions are particularly fertile ground for a mezzo-soprano; unusually for such recitals, only two items here are from the Italian stable.

That immediately poses the question regarding the suitability of her essential timbre to her supposed Fach. Volkova has a large, slightly hard and ungainly tone which at times slightly reminds me of a greater, francophone artist, Rita Gorr, who could also be rather formidable and stentorian when singing in what should ideally be a subtler, gentler, Gallic idiom; the late, great Elena Obraztsova faced the same challenges when bringing her huge voice to French roles. Volkova has a splendidly trenchant lower register, but warning bells sounded in my head the second I first heard what should have been the resplendent, concluding top B-flat to the opening aria, “Ō ma lyre immortelle” from Gounod’s Sapho; it is screamed, thin, slightly flat and drowned out by the orchestra, requiring at the very least a retake – unless Volkova does not really have the note in her voice, which points to another issue: does a singer without, at the very least, a confident, ringing top B or even a top C properly merit the appellation of “operatic mezzo-soprano”? Having said that, her top A-flat concluding the Khovanshchina aria is a whopper.

Then we come to another of my hobby-horses: what constitutes a proper, authentic vibrato which never slips into a wobble? The only time I had previously heard Volkova was in her recording of Polina in Maris Jansons’ 2014 live recording of Queen of Spades and I remarked in my survey of that opera that she had “a lovely, rich tone but also rather too pronounced a vibrato”. I submit that there are too many occasions in the second aria, “Printemps qui commence” when what should be a velvety, legato line is disrupted by sudden, rather obvious and self-consciously applied descents into that mordant lower zone of her voice and the production of notes in the middle of her range which turn acerbic. Her French is passable but mushy and the listener would never mistake her for a native speaker; she tends to make every French “e” into an “i” so we hear “di l’aurori” instead of “de l’aurore” so the words emerge rather bottled and nasal in the wrong way. Unsurprisingly, she sounds much clearer and at home in Russian.

Those are rather sour complaints and observations I have made. Let me provide some balance by saying that I found some numbers here much more rewarding than others: the fourth item is a curiosity and a rarity, and given that it is from an opera written in 1978 by Volkova’s compatriot composer Dmitri Smolsky, it is astoundingly melodic and tonal for something so recently composed – so it’s a pity the story itself is so grim, gory and gruesome (blinding and amputations – say no more). The fifth aria, the plangent reverie from Mignon, is feelingly sung and seems to sit more comfortably in Volkova’s voice. I also really enjoy the aria from Sadko – also still something of a rarity – which is typical of Rimsky Korsakov in that any static quality is compensated for by his melodic charm and invention. Volkova’s singing of it is much steadier and more settled than when she sings in French - a contrast confirmed by its juxtaposition with the ensuing aria from Werther which strikes me as strident and lacking in nuance and delicacy. The aria from Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans, however, is superb – both musically and interpretatively. Similarly, the Khovanshchina aria already mentioned above, is really impressive in its emotional and vocal range. Her performance of it makes me wonder: is she in fact a true alto singing in the wrong tessitura?

This recital decidedly improves as it proceeds. The Cavalleria aria is powerful and impassioned even if the final cries of “Io son dannata” lack authentic Italian bite. Chimčne’s aria is powerfully sung if rather generic in expression and little blemishes in her French like “mes cieux” for “mes yeux” can grate. She finishes with a real blockbuster in “Acerba voluttą” which requires her to draw upon the meatiest area of her voice around low E. She makes a really thrilling job of it and thus finishes on a high. Not everything in this album is on that level but this final number demonstrates the best of her gifts, leading me to suggest that if she could acquire a more serviceable top, she could be singing the big Verdian scenery-chewing roles like Amneris.

Orbelian is a known quantity, providing excellent, sympathetic accompaniment, geared to accommodate the weight and heft of his singer’s voice. The booklet provides dramatic context, biographical notes and full texts and English translations. I must admit to failing to grasp quite how the album title even loosely relates to the selection of arias here, although obviously most treat of that staple of operatic themes, despised or destructive love.

The back cover of the CD contains some minor mistakes: the order of the two Massenet arias is reversed and “Adriana” is wrongly spelt with a double “n”. Because there is no intervention from Mamma Lucia, the libretto cuts off and does not include Santuzza’s final, repeated “Io son dannata”.

Ralph Moore

Previous review: Michael Cookson

Charles Gounod: Sapho
1. Ō ma lyre immortelle [8:01]
Camille Saint-Saėns: Samson et Dalila
2. Printemps qui commence [4:58]
3. Mon coeur s'ouvre ą ta voix [6:15]
Dmitry Smolsky: Hoary Legend
4. Ti pripomni jak lotaz kalisti u lugah mi zbirali (Remember how we once plucked marigolds in the meadows) [3:15]
Ambroise Thomas: Mignon
5. Connais-tu le pays [5:05]
Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov: Sadko
6. Vsyu noch zhdala ego ya ponasprasnu (All Night I Have Waited for Him in Vain) [5:09]
Jules Massenet: Werther
7. Va! Laisse couler mes larmes [2:34]
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Maid of Orleans
8. Prostite vi, kholomi, polia rodniye (Farewell, You Native Hills and Fields) [7:02]
Georges Bizet: Carmen
9. Seguidilla [2:08]
Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina
10. Sily potainye (Mysterious forces) [5:18]
Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana
11. Voi lo sapete o mamma [4:12]
Jules Massenet: Le Cid
12. Pleurez! Pleurez mes yeux [5:33]
Francesco Cilea: Adriana Lecouvreur
13. Acerba voluttą, dolce tortura [4:20]

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