La donna del lago – Tanti affetti in un momento … Fra il padre e fra l’amante
Guillaume Tell – Ils s’éloignent enfin … Sombre forêt
Semiramide – Serena I vaghi rai … Bel raggio lusinghier … Dolce pensiero di quell’istante
Otello – Oh tu del mio dolor dolce instrumento! … Assisa a’ pie d’un salice
La Cenerentola – Overture; Della fortuna istabile … Nacqui all’affanno … Non più mesta
L’assedio di Corinto – L’ora fatal s’appressa … Giusto ciel!
Julia Lezhneva (soprano)
Warsaw Chamber Opera Choir
Recorded January 2010 at Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio of Polish Radio, Warsaw
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: March 2011
CD No: NAÏVE V5221
Duration: 58 minutes
Here is a Russian singer who began participating in vocal competitions at the age of twelve, who made her professional debut at sixteen, and who also won several international competitions during her teen years. Now comes her debut recording, comprising several very demanding bel canto arias. According to conventional wisdom, this is not how young artists should be proceeding. If exceptional talent has been discerned it should be nursed along carefully, repertoire slowly enlarged until the voice, the musicianship and the understanding are ready to tackle major roles without putting the voice in jeopardy. Critics of the speedy rise of Julia Lezhneva will doubtless predict dire consequences and quote as evidence the burn-out of a number of young singers in recent years, conveniently ignoring the fact that many great singers of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century began their careers at a surprisingly young age.
The selection of music for this release represents Rossini’s varied career quite neatly: two tragic operas written for Naples (“La donna del lago” and “Otello”), a comedy premièred in Rome (“La Cenerentola”), his last Italian opera (“Semiramide”) and two of his final works written for Paris (“Le siège de Corinthe” and “Guillaume Tell”). The rondo-finale from “La donna del lago” (1819) requires virtuoso skills, both in the opening, with its multitude of gruppetti and hardly a plain phrase, then various intricacies in each of the three fast variations which follow: scales, glissandos and two-octave plunges. Lezhneva is both proficient and creative: I found a glistening little pearl of an unexpected soft top B flat particularly appealing. There is a darkish hue to the sound and the voice leans marginally in the direction of a mezzo, which means comfort at middle C and even below but the tone tends to curdle around A flat above the stave.
A common complaint directed at recital discs such as this is that the characters are insufficiently differentiated. There is plenty of variety here and the roles are certainly not interchangeable. Lezhneva’s Semiramide is palpably regal and imposing, even if ruthless, in the predominantly recitative-like ‘Bel raggio’. In the following ‘Dolce pensiero’ the queen reveals her soft side. The soprano’s technical assurance is again apparent as she runs expertly up and down the scale but the brilliance is combined with some tender quiet singing. In the final scene of “La Cenerentola” (Cinderella) she balances pathos with jubilation, trills expertly and keeps every note in place at Marc Minkowski’s fast pace. The voice is evenly produced in all registers and she loses nothing by comparison with the mezzos who are generally associated with the role.
But Lezhneva does not need fast bravura passage-work and agile movement to make an impact. Desdemona’s ‘Willow Song’ is at the other extreme, withdrawn and reflective. High notes are at a premium and delicacy is the requirement in the decorations. She shows herself capable of producing consistently limpid tone, while working hard with words and notes to establish the desolation of the abandoned girl in one of Rossini’s true masterpieces for the human voice.In Lezhneva’s performance of the noble and austere ‘Prayer of Pamira’ from the last Act of “L’assedio di Corinto” (Rossini’s reworking for Paris of “Maometto II”) I hear the potential for her to develop into an operatic tragedienne. Most impressive too I found her vocal fluency as Mathilde in “William Tell”. It is quite an achievement for a soprano to adapt her skills to the lyrical demands of ‘Sombre forêt’. Her utterance of the recitative is that of a powerful soliloquy, her trepidation and uncertainty about her feelings blossoming into a declaration of love for Arnold. She copes impressively with the extended phrases of the aria, paying dutiful attention to the dynamic markings and floating exquisite high notes above the stave, the tone remaining pure and the French enunciation impeccable.
Several benign influences have doubtless contributed to the head-start that this young singer has made. She is a protégée of Kiri Te Kanawa. She clearly benefits from working with Minkowski, who here shows both understanding of, and respect for, Rossini. The orchestral balances are thoughtfully calculated. Tempos are ideally selected, inner parts are brought out and instrumental solos characterfully played. The poetic accompaniment and treatment of dynamics in ‘Sombre forêt’ make Rossini’s writing seem worthy of the great symphonic masters. Minkowski’s leadership of the gifted musicians of Sinfonia Varsovia as well as the chorus is a major contributor to the success of this issue.
What sceptics can hardly deny is that Lezhneva is already uncommonly accomplished as a singer and, on the evidence of this recital, also as an artist. The degree of musical and artistic finish which can be heard here must be regarded as a tribute to the Cardiff International Academy of Voice founded by Dennis O’Neill, at which Lezhneva studied from 2008. The Academy had to close in 2010 when its funding was withdrawn, although new sources of finance are being sought. The Academy could hardly have a better endorsement than Lezhneva’s stupendous singing as captured on this Rossini collection.