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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 2, No. 8

Galina Gorchakova in Toronto

by Joseph So / May 1, 1997

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Originally scheduled for February 8th and postponed due to illness, Galina Gorchakova finally showed up to make her long-awaited Toronto debut this evening in Roy Thomson Hall, before an enthusiastic audience.

Wearing a black velvet gown with bouffant sleeves, tight bodice and a flowery lace skirt on top, and with her black hair pulled tightly back in a bun, her alabaster skin adorned with extravagant but tasteful jewellery, the only word one can use to describe her appearance is "stunning". There is a slightly old-fashioned air to her "look", as if she had just been transported to a musical salon in the 1890's Vienna. Her spontaneous smile and warm stage presence was very much in evidence right from the beginning, and at the end of the first group, she had the audience eating out of her hand.

In an era of small voices electronically enhanced and cleverly promoted, or sopranos who scream more than they sing the higher they go, Gorchakova is a phenomenon. The middle voice and mezza voce are unremarkable, but at the top of the staff, her volume can pin you to your seat, as she did tonight on several occasions. The huge top voice is of heroic proportions, yet without the often inevitable edge. She is also very musical and communicative. It is small wonder that she is in great demand everywhere. However, I feel that on this particular evening, she was not in top form, with the lower middle (e, f and g above middle c) weak, without resonance, and even raspy at times. She tried hard not to push there, and occasionally she had to resort to chest tones to make it audible. Perhaps she was under the weather, and her declining to receive well wishers in the green room afterwards would support that theory. (I believe she is the broadcast Tatiana this Saturday - it would be interesting to see if she sounds the same.)

She sang songs by Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev in the first half, closing with the Letter Scene from Onegin. The second half was devoted to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff songs, closing with Vissi d'arte. Despite some beautiful singing in the Russian songs, the programme is problematic. There was too much "sameness" to it - every song is slow and sad. Ideal song recital should have more variety, some fast, some slow, with change of mood, showing the audience what the singer can do. A whole evening of slow, sad, introspective Russian songs, however haunting, gives the recital a certain "sick room atmosphere"! Even though the audience was extremely affectionate to her ( and she seemed genuinely surprised and pleased), she sang only two encores - Tu tu piccolo Iddio from Butterfly and Ebben ne andro lontana from La Wally. Her accompanist was Larissa Gergieva, whose playing can best be termed uneven. At times (as in the Rachmaninoff) she was very fine. But her Letter Scene was IMHO like a rehearsal run-through - she played as if she thoroughly hated the piece. She offered no support what-so-ever to Gorchakova. In a few spots where the pianist is supposed to show her skill, she really wasn't up to the challenge.

Even with Gorchakova below her best, the voice is thrilling, as the top rang out impressively. There is no hint of the dreaded Slavic wobble. Her acting is dramatic without being kitschy and her stage personality is altogether beguiling. Perhaps it is a bit unfair, but I can't help comparing her to Marina Mescheriakova, the current darling of the Toronto opera world. They have rather similar voices, with Gorchakova more of a dramatic soprano while MM is more spinto. But Mescheriakova has an exquisite high pianissimi, a much stronger middle voice, and volume that is only marginally smaller. Together with Elena Prokina and Maria Guleghina, the Russians are a force to reckon with, and we in the West are richer for it.

Joseph So is professor of Anthropology at Trent University

...And Gorchakova in New York

Gorchakova's recital in the Art of the Song series at Lincoln Center March 23 took place between two performances as Tatiana in the Met's current Onegin. Changes to her recital were announced from the stage: the Letter Scene from Onegin was dropped without explanation. Seven extra songs by the scheduled composers (Glinka, Balakirev, Rimsky, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Dargomyzhsky) would be offered instead. The loss of the Letter Scene was serious, even for people like me who had already been to Onegin, because her Letter Scene at the Met was completely drowned out by the orchestra. A whole program of Russian songs especially the unrelentingly plangent and monotonous one's we heard this afternoon, tested my patience. Only Gorchakova's "Vissi d'Arte", and her encore "Tu, tu, piccolo idio" gave us a hint of what makes this donna prima. But two arias are not enough, and one went away feeling unsatisfied. Philip Anson

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