Fulfilling Her Mother’s Dream: Hibla Gerzmava and La bohème [The Royal Opera’s La bohème, 19 December 2009-11 January 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Russian soprano whose dramatic flair is central to her performances…

Hibla Gerzmava

It was thirty-five years ago that Covent Garden presented a new production of Puccini’s La bohème directed by John Copley and held in much affection and still with Copley at the helm. This time around it is Hibla Gerzmava who plays Mimì in the first of two casts. Since she has previously appeared in the role of Musetta as well as that of Mimì, it is an opera that she knows well, but when I meet her she displays a very special enthusiasm for this particular production and not least for working with John Copley.

Previously Hibla has appeared at The Royal Opera as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin. That proved to be a happy experience for somebody who had dreamt about being at Covent Garden and who recognised it as an important step in her career. It must also have pleased those who had hired her because it led to her being booked for this return visit in which she finds herself singing in the first seven of the ten performances (Rebecca Evans takes the final three). “Being the second time here, I can feel a bit more comfortable about it, and I’m very happy that on this occasion I am singing in Italian because it’s that repertoire that comes most naturally to me.”

This last statement is something of a surprise coming as it does from a Russian artist, but it’s only one of several comments that shed an unexpected light on this singer and on her approach to her work. In addition to Onegin she has appeared in operas by Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Prokofiev and Stravinsky but her preference for Italian works is linked to her background. It’s true that she trained at the Moscow Conservatory from which she graduated in 1994 and it is Moscow that is now her home, but she was not born there and we talk first about her early days. “I come from the south and was born in Abkhazia, in Pitsunda. My parents were not professional musicians but the whole family was musical and we would all sing together in a way that is traditional in that region. We were involved in a lot of polyphonic singing with up to 8 or even 12 voices together. That was my background and while still in Abkhazia I studied to be a pianist. Today I find that my ability at the piano helps me a lot as a singer even though I do not play in public. It was only after reaching the Conservatory in Moscow that singing became my main concern, but in going there I was fulfilling the dream that my late mother had for me. She hoped that I would be able to study there, so by leaving home after her death I was making her dream a reality.”

Hibla Gerzmava as Mimì. Photograph: Johan Persson

Thus it was that Hibla left behind her life in Abkhazia, but it had already marked her in important ways. “I appreciate the music of composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov and it was a major step for me when in 1994 I became a prize-winner in two International Competitions, the Tchaikovsky held in Moscow and the Rimsky-Korsakov which took place in St Petersburg. But what you perform there doesn’t have to be by those composers, and I find that it’s the Italian repertoire to which I am particularly responsive. Down south where I come from the rhythm of life and the emotions and the way that people express them are actually closer to what one associates with Italy, so temperamentally I almost feel more Italian than Russian, and some people believe that my looks are more Italianate too. Consequently, I’m happy to be showing my Italian side in La bohème. Where I do have a special feeling for Russian music, it’s perhaps more for songs like the Russian Romances which I have recorded. In any case I am keen to do concert-hall work as well as opera and I travel a lot doing concerts both around and outside Russia as well as going back to the Conservatory and singing at the Stanislavsky Theatre. I like to try everything and recently I have developed a jazz programme with wonderful musicians. Indeed, when I appear at the Stanislavsky in January it will for the first time in that theatre’s history of a jazz concert being presented: some of it will be classical melodies put into jazz rhythms but I will also be singing established jazz compositions in operatic voice.”

This desire to embrace a wide range of music applies no less to Hibla’s ambitions on the operatic stage. Her CV refers to just one Mozart role – Zerlina in Don Giovanni – and to one work of a much earlier period, Daphne by the Italian composer Marco da Gagliano, so I ask if she has any wish to build on that. “Actually I do quite a lot of Baroque pieces and I would love to do more in different styles and different languages, even if at present the period of the 19th-century is particularly comfortable for me. The voice you need for Italian operas like Traviata and Lucia di Lammermoor is very different from what is required in Mozart which I associate more with the melismatic elements to be found in earlier music. I’ve done quite a lot of Mozart with orchestras and in 2011 I shall be doing La clemenza di Tito. I look forward also to singing Donna Anna.”

Hibla Gerzmava as  Mimì & Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo. Photograph: Johan Persson

The references she has made to her repertoire tend to stress dramatic roles, but one should not overlook the fact that Hibla has also played Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Adina in L’elisir d’amore and Adele in Die Fledermaus. “Those roles come naturally to me because I am myself very fun-loving, but what I really like is to achieve a balance by mixing heavier and lighter parts. There is a side to me that is well suited to dramatic roles and although it never became official I did receive overtures enquiring if I would be interested in appearing in straight theatre”. In contrast to Maria Callas who appeared as an actress for Pasolini in his film of Euripides’s Medea, Hibla has not followed up these suggestions, but the fact that the possibility was mooted is significant in itself as a sign of the importance that drama and emotion play in her approach to being a singer. When it comes to considering roles, she is quite clear about what she is looking for. “I need to fall in love with the character so that I can live it and, indeed, every role that I do has to be done with love. I have to have a passion for the character if I am to do it well. You can sing Lucia very beautifully and a lot of people do, but I feel that to play such a role, to portray her, you need to go beyond the singing as such: you have to show what is going on inside her and it’s a work that provides room for you to reveal many different aspects of her character. It’s the same in Traviata: you only have to compare the first and third Acts to see how the character of Violetta changes from the one to the other.”

In making these points Hibla may seem to be stressing the dramatic qualities required of an opera singer rather than the vocal demands, but she does not separate the two. “The voice that you use when reaching out to an audience – the very sound of it – comes to a great extent from the drama. I live a role in such a way that it is the emotional state of the character that gives the energy and the quality to the voice, and I believe that that is something which the audience feels. That’s why audiences who know an opera like Bohème and how it ends and who may have seen me in it before always seem to cry at the end. It’s through the intensity of the emotion that I can give to it that this happens, and I have to say that I am not one of those singers who comes to herself as soon as the music ends. When I play Lucia it can even take as long as two days before I fully leave the character behind. Indeed, it’s because I feel so involved with a role that those around me in rehearsal have learnt to express themselves carefully whenever my character is one who passes away: they know that they should not talk to me about ‘when you die’ but should always say ‘when Mimi dies’ or ‘when Violetta dies’. I prefer that.”

Hibla Gerzmava as  Mimì & Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo. Photograph: Johan Persson

Hibla mentions that she finds it very interesting to do rarer works. This is a particular pleasure for her when she performs in Russia where it is commonplace for such events to be fully booked and to attract a wide audience. However enjoyable it is for her personally to discover these pieces there is an even greater satisfaction in knowing that she is probably bringing these works to an audience unfamiliar with them. La bohème being one of the most popular of all operas stands at the opposite extreme to this, but appearing in it offers its own satisfactions. “Mimi is undoubtedly one of my favourite roles, but very important too is the fact that it brings me full circle since I started out in opera with La bohème. Then I was singing Musetta, but there’s still this nice feeling of coming back to something you remember fondly.”

The fact that Hibla has appeared both as the opera’s tragic heroine and as the flighty, fiery but warm-hearted Musetta makes me wonder if having seen the piece through the eyes of both characters has provided her with special insights. However, raising this question leads us into an area that I had not foreseen. “To tell the truth, I know this particular opera so well that it’s not just a matter of having played both roles but a case of knowing the work so fully that I could probably sing it for everybody! But, yes, playing these two contrasted characters does add to one’s understanding of the piece. It’s not easy to explain but the feelings involved are so different depending on which character you are playing. Whenever I appear as Musetta and come to that last scene of the opera, I find that I can’t prevent myself from crying. In the Second Act Musetta is flirting and fooling around, but in the Fourth Act when Mimi is dying she is desperately trying to help but can’t really do anything and that leaves me feeling truly tearful. But when I am Mimi it is not like that at all. Throughout the entire opera there’s a lot of emotion involved for her, but at the close she’s very peaceful. However draining for her it has been emotionally, she is there with Rodolfo, the man she loves, and is surrounded by friends. She has accepted her destiny and she is so much at peace that she probably finds it hard to understand why everybody is crying. So at the end of the day it is as Musetta that I feel distressed while as Mimi I can sense that she is peaceful and I identify with that.”

Andris Nelsons is conducting the December performances (Paul Wynne Griffiths and Maurizio Benini those in January) and is new to Hibla but already she is finding him helpful, very involved in the rehearsal process and emotionally devoted to it. As Rodolfo, she is reunited with Piotr Beczala (he was Lensky in Onegin) and then Teodor Ilincal takes over for two performances. Her role obviously remains the same but she has started to rehearse with both singers and is aware of how her acting will vary through instinctive rather than planned responses to each of these two artists. However, in enthusing about the way things are going it is to John Copley that she gives pride of place. “I am so grateful for the way he approaches the whole working process. He makes it very light, very enjoyable, and there’s so much laughter at the rehearsals. The atmosphere he creates is such that it just feels like a big celebration every day. He’s there to give you the basic direction in which he wants you to go but then he gives you enough freedom to express yourself and bring your own experience to bear. He gives you so much air to breathe and I find that wonderful.”

Of the many awards that Hibla has won, one stands out due to its special nature. In 2006 she was given the title of Meritorious Artist by Vladimir Putin. You can’t help but wonder how she would have reacted as a child growing up in Abkhazia had she been told then that one day she would receive an award of this kind from Russia’s President. “I would have been very curious about the prospect of meeting the President and very happy – and, yes, I would have believed it.” Hearing that reply and registering the justified confidence it suggests, you feel that Hibla is in a very special way her mother’s daughter.

  • Ten performances at various times with different casts and conductors from Saturday 19 December 2009 (7.30 p.m.) to Monday 11 January 2010 (also 7.30)
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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