- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall was packed Wednesday evening with an enthusiastic audience eager to encounter a decidedly nonstandard program of obscure Russian opera arias and tragic Russian popular songs from World War II. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the program was being presented by the most famous Siberian baritone ever, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who is seriously challenging American bass-baritone Samuel Ramey as opera’s reigning hunk.

Animal magnetism aside, Mr. Hvorostovsky came to sing accompanied by the generally competent Philharmonia of Russia under the baton of its music director, Constantine Orbelian. Also backing him were Washington’s Cathedral Choral Society and members of the Russian folk-music ensemble Style of Five.

The first half of Mr. Hvorostovsky’s program consisted of a mix of rarely heard Russian opera arias interspersed with purely orchestral and choral selections. The first of these dark treats, Aleko’s Cavatina from Rachmaninoff’s student one-act, “Aleko,” is heard only occasionally in the United States, and it whetted one’s appetite for the whole thing once Mr. Hvorostovsky sang this lugubrious story of heartbreak and betrayal.

Equally effective was the pairing of two offstage arias sung by the villain in Anton Rubenstein’s opera “The Demon.” Better known today as the most famous Russian pianist in the late 19th century, Rubenstein was a prolific composer who wrote several operas. Of them, “The Demon,” based on a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, was perhaps the most fantastic. Materializing on Earth, the title character falls in love with a princess and murders her intended husband in order to take the suitor’s place.

Both of the Demon’s arias, sung exquisitely by Mr. Hvorostovsky, take place during the funeral lamentations for the dead man. Only the princess can hear the Demon’s ghostly, seductive songs, which seem like precursors in mood and atmosphere to something like “The Phantom” today.

Equally affecting was Igor’s Act II aria, taken from Borodin’s rarely seen opera “Prince Igor.” Captured by a Turkish tribe, the Prince mourns his current situation, and Mr. Hvorostovsky convincingly conveyed Igor’s sense of longing and despair in deeply burnished tones.

The second half of Mr. Hvorostovsky’s program was largely derived from recent work he has done in the recording studio to revive Russian popular music of World War II and the period immediately afterward. Like our own popular songs from that era, most of this music was lost or forgotten by the generations that followed.

However, Mr. Hvorostovsky’s recent revival CDs, “Russian Songs of the War Years,” and “Moscow Nights” — which he has dubbed “semicrossover” recordings — have become surprise hits in Russia and Europe, leading to renewed interest in the music of this period.

Unlike generally more upbeat American postwar music, these songs are predominantly in a minor key and stress death, destruction and irretrievable loss. Part of this is attributable to the melancholic tendency of Russian composers in general. However, in the United States, which had minimal incursions on its soil in World War II, it is easy to forget that between Stalin and the Germans, the Russian people suffered catastrophic losses numbering in the tens of millions before, during and after the great conflict.

Mr. Hvorostovsky brought this sense of historical inevitability to his interpretations of these songs. Particularly moving was his almost conversational rendering of Kiril Molchanov’s aria “Zhdia menia” (“Wait for me”) from his popular operatic work “And the Dawns Are So Quiet Here.”

In this sung monologue, a young soldier, obsessed with his likely fate, prays that his far-distant beloved has the courage to “wait” silently for his return. For, he reasons, in her mystical ability to sustain her lonely vigil of hope, she may somehow sustain his life. Mr. Hvorostovsky effortlessly brought out the pathos — and the sly humor — of the situation.

Mr. Hvorostovsky concluded the evening with a few short encores, including the popular title song from his recent CD, “Moscow Nights.” Additionally, he graciously reappeared in the lobby to autograph CDs after the concert — a nice human touch that has become all too rare in today’s entertainment world, where many artists callously take their fans for granted.

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