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Oksana Volkova (mezzo)
Poison d’amour
Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Constantine Orbelian
rec. Kaunas Philharmonic 13-16 May 2019
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
DELOS DE3584 [63:50]

Belarusian mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova has been a leading exponent for her voice category in the great opera houses of the world for the last decade, having more than twenty roles in her repertoire. Her real international breakthrough came in 2013 with her Metropolitan debut as Maddalena in Rigoletto and Olga in Eugene Onegin. It was also as Maddalena I first met her in the Delos recording of Rigoletto with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role, a recording that also turned out to be his last. Only a few days after the release of that recording news media reported that the Siberian baritone had died of brain cancer aged 55, mourned by a whole world of opera lovers. Maddalena is hardly a role that catapults a singer to stardom, but even her appearance in the last act – including the famous quartet – was enough for me to wish to hear more of Ms Volkova. When I at last got the opportunity in this premiere solo album, I was more than satisfied. Thirteen great mezzo-roles, most of them well-known, but there are one or two lesser-known items as well. More than half of this baker’s dozen is French, complemented with four Slavonic arias and two Italian.

The odd man out is Dmitry Smolski, who is practically unknown in the West. He was Belarusian and was attracted by the avant-garde music of the 1960s and early 1970s, employing serial technique in some of his key-works. But his opera The Grey Legend from 1978 is a tonal work of great beauty, at least to judge from the aria recorded here. It is sung with great conviction and glow and makes me wish to hear more from the same work.

The programme opens, however, with a couple of French works, and Gounod’s very first opera, Sapho, is hardly a repertoire work, even though Sapho’s final aria, sung before she throws herself into the sea, is no rarity in recital and on records. It is also a suitable calling card for Oksana Volkova. She has a slightly vibrant voice, which may reveal her Slavonic background, but it’s miles away from the Slavonic wobble which disfigured so many east-European singers in the distant past. This is a well-controlled vibrato – even at forte – the tone is remarkably beautiful; she has an excellent legato, and she nuances well. All in all, it is a classy voice that belongs up in the Parnassus.

It is followed by Delila’s two famous arias from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, beloved songs for fruity and impassioned mezzo-sopranos. The “spring song” is powerful and beautiful; the opening of the “seduction aria” sounds a little breathless, but that may be intentional, since the character must be nervous before her deed: to cut the hair of the strongest man in the world. And the rest of the “aria” is glorious. As usual one misses Samson’s phrases – after all this is a duet – and even though this is Oksana Volkova’s recital, it wouldn’t have come amiss to hire a capable tenor to make the score complete. I have already mentioned the Smolski aria, which should be a pleasant surprise for many listeners. Let me add only that I have a distinct feeling that Ms Volkova is at her very best in the four Slavonic arias. Belarusian is an East-Slavonic language, closely related to Russian and Ukrainian, and both Russian and Belarusian are official languages in Belarus. Russian is even the most common language spoken in the homes.

Ambroise Thomas composed more than twenty operas during his long life, but only two have survived to the present day, Mignon and Hamlet, and even they are fairly sparsely performed nowadays. Mignon’s aria Connais-tu le pays is, however, often heard in recital and is a sweet bon-bon, whether sung by a mezzo, as in the 1866 original, or by a soprano, as in the revised version from 1870. The Mignon at that second premiere was Christina Nilsson, who had been Ophelia in the premiere of Hamlet in 1868. Oksana Volkova naturally chooses the mezzo variant, originally performed by Célestine Galli-Marié, who nine years later was the first Carmen. The reading here is excellent, and I would also like to give a rose to the solo flautist.

Of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fifteen operas, Sadko is the seventh, and it was premiered in 1898. It is based on a legend about a 12th century minstrel who leaves his young wife to explore the world and eventually returns to Novgorod as a wealthy man. In this aria, early in the opera, his wife Lyubava is alone, longing for her husband to come home, which he does, only to tell her he is leaving. The aria is less known than the Song of the Indian Merchant, which became a hit in 1953 when Mario Lanza recorded it with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, but it is a fine piece of music and Oksana Volkova sings it with deep involvement.

Back to the French repertoire and Jules Massenet, she sings an aria from Le Cid, a grand opera which was a great success in 1885 at the Paris Opéra and continued to be so until 1919. After that it fell into oblivion and was not performed again – apart from a concert performance in 1976 at Carnegie Hall with Placido Domingo and Grace Bumbry, which was issued on LP – until 1979. It has not been established as a repertoire work again, but it contains a lot of fine music, including a famous ballet suite. The aria performed here is one of the best and it is sung with feeling and intensity. Unfortunately, the track list has mixed it up with the aria from Werther, which follows later in the programme. The track list below is the correct one.

One of the greatest Russian mezzo arias is Joan of Arc’s farewell to her native home in the first act of Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans. Here Oksana Volkova applies some extra Slavonic vibrancy to underline her emotional connection to neighbourhood where she grew up. It is a strong reading, and the atmospheric French horn solo in the interlude enhances the outdoor feeling.

Carmen has naturally become a signature role for Oksana Volkova, and it was, of course, unavoidable to include the Seguidilla in this programme. I wouldn’t mind if Delos choose to record a complete Carmen for their next opera project – naturally with Ms Volkova in the title role!

For her last Russian item, she chose Marfa’s aria from Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina – another of the great roles in the Slavonic repertoire – and again she is at her very best. I would say that this is possibly the highlight of the disc. But she is also very good as Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, where she lightens her tone somewhat but still has scope for brilliant drama. Charlotte’s Va! Laisse couler mes larmes from Werther is inward but with restrained glow, and for the final offering we get Princess de Bouillon’s high-octane aria from the second act of Adriana Lecouvreur. Here the album’s title Poison d’amour , which must be seen as a symbolic “Poison of Love”, applies literally, since the Princess actually poisons Adriana.

The programme is an interesting mix of the well-known and some rarities. The Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Orbelian have a comprehensive discography of more than twenty recordings on the Delos label. They have excellent rapport, which contributes greatly to the success of this disc, and the sound is excellent.

I do urge readers to explore this recital with one of the most thrilling singers now before the public.

Göran Forsling

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Ralph Moore ~ Paul Steinson

Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)
Sapho: O ma lyre immortelle [8:01]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921)
Samson et Dalila: Printemps qui commence [4:58]
Mon Coeur s’ouvre ŕ ta voix [6:15]
Dmitry SMOLSKI (1937 – 2017)
The Gray Legend: Ti pripomni jak lotaz kalisti u lugah mi zbirali (Remember how we once plucked marigolds in the meadows) [3:15]
Ambroise THOMAS (1811 – 1896)
Mignon: Connais-tu le pays [5:05]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844 – 1908)
Sadko: Vsyu noch zhdala ego ya ponaprasnu [5:09]
Jules MASSENET (1842 – 1912)
Le Cid: Pleurez! Pleurez mes yeux [5:33]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
The Maid of Orleans: Prostite vi, kholomi polia rodniye [7:02]
Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875)
Carmen: Seguidilla [2:08]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839 – 1881)
Khovanshchina: Sily potainye [5:18]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945)
Cavalleria rusticana: Voi lo sapete o mamma [4:12]
Werther: Va! Laisse couler mes larmes [2:34]
Francesco CILEA (1866 – 1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur: Acerba voluttŕ [4:20]

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