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2016.11.05 la Vanguardia: Duel of Baritones at the Liceu

LA VANGUARDIA  5.11.2016

Duel of Baritones at the Liceu

by Maricel Chavarria

 (Duelo de barítonos en el Liceu)

The experienced Russian Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the charismatic Englishman Simon Keenlyside, two “sex symbols” of the opera stage, explore the stereotypes of masculinity in opera.

The 21st century is the century of baritones. You don’t believe that? It is obvious that tenors such as Jonas Kaufmann or Juan Diego Flórez are those singers who raise passions among the opera-going public. But a deeper seduction is unfolding from the baritone register. There is a magnetism there in which the composers of the time have also been trapped. It is quite logical: The voice of a baritone is the epitome of the male voice, the most natural, the most familiar and … pleasant. That’s why Verdi and Wagner adored it. And that’s why it gained prominence among the roles of romantic heroes which in belcanto were sung by tenors.

Within twelve days, the Liceu gives us the opportunity to check this idea with two very different prototypes of the heroic baritone: the experienced Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who has openly brandished his image of a tattooed Russian – tomorrow he offers an aria concert of Russian and Verdi  repertoire in Barcelona – and the charismatic and more elegant Simon Keenlyside, who since his stunning Hamlet in 2003 has been very much loved by the audience of the Liceu, who look forward to a recital with a varied programme: it starts with the Russians – oh, yes, also – and continues with songs by Duparc, Poulenc, Richard Strauss and Schubert.

“Perhaps it is true that any man who exhibits all the traditional features of masculinity on stage is showing the most common of all men. Wasn’t it Doris Day who said ‘Macho doesn’t prove mucho’?” an amused Simon Keenlyside comments by e-mail. In a captivating way the singer possesses that British charm and that affable countenance that the public is craving to see. He was a choirboy and a student of zoology at Cambridge before he decided to study singing professionally. He is married to the French ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky. Keenlyside has given life to all kinds of characters: Don Giovanni, Papageno, Figaro, Lescaut, Pelléas, Prospero, and Hamlet, of course, but also Prince Yeletsky in Pique Dame or Andrei in War and Peace and , good heavens!, Eugene Onegin.

Is it easier to characterize an archetypal hero? we ask him.

“The majority of the central characters in opera are neither heroes nor anti-heroes, but devices created by the composers so that we can see ourselves reflected in them, extreme versions of common people with, let’s say, exaggerated needs. Was it Brecht, who said ‘That’s a poor nation that needs heroes’? Let’s see: Is Don Giovanni a hero or an anti-hero? Billy Budd? Hero or victim. Macbeth? Possibly an anti-hero. Mefistofeles? Definitely an anti-hero. Rodrigo in Don Carlo, a hero? I don’t think so. Rigoletto, hero or villain? I don’t know. In any case, you have three hours, as long as an opera takes, to create a real being.”

And how can you succeed in this task?

“You have to offer something of their nature and the character of the music in the way you move on stage “- he explains in beautiful English – “I try to match the physicality with the nature of the character. Germont in La Traviata is immobile and rigid. Papageno in The Magic Flute is lively and active. Don Giovanni can be, and is, many things to many people. Wozzeck is agitated but need not be quick on the stage … For me, the physicality is just another colour to help build, piece by piece, the person on the stage. The more colours you can bring in the more you seem a real person. And of course the vocal colour that you choose helps to communicate vulnerability, pain, anger, aggressiveness, innocence to the public. …It is a very pleasant puzzle for a singer.”

For his part, the acclaimed Dmitri Hvorostovsky, of great stage looks and with a wide ranging voice which easily reaches the deep notes (bass register), is one of those who cannot live without bodyguards, due to a legion of fans – mostly women – who go crazy when he passes by. Not in vain is he especially successful in Russian and Italian operas, so that he shares some heroic roles with Keenlyside (Onegin, Don Giovanni, Figaro, Rigoletto …)

But his heroism in real life has surpassed any fiction, since in 2015 he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, a situation which he fights with unbending optimism.



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