Classical music has lost one of its most magisterial voices and commanding personas. Russian baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky died at the age of 55 last week after a hard-fought battle with brain cancer. Immediately recognizable by his Byronic mane of prematurely silver hair, Hvorostovsky embodied an overpowering masculinity in both sound and stage presence. His voice was a force of nature, deep and lushly resonant; in its hooded colorings, it projected dangerous erotic power, as did his hooded, concentrated gaze. Hvorostovsky could override normal pauses for breath in melodic lines, suspending the listener in a river of sound.
Hvorostovsky arrived at the Metropolitan Opera in 1995 for Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, but became even more prominent in New York after 2002, when the Met produced Sergei Prokofiev’s windswept and melodically rapturous War and Peace for the first time. The production was part of Met General Manager Joseph Volpe’s historic collaboration with conductor Valery Gergiev and St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater. As a young pianist, Hvorostovsky had fallen in love with Prokofiev, especially with the composer’s ballet scores, he recounted in virtually flawless English in a contemporaneous interview. Making her American debut, in a star-is-born moment, was Gergiev protégée Anna Netrebko as a girlish and effervescent Natasha. Hvorostovsky and Netrebko would go on to become New York regulars, as their careers hit the stratosphere. (The Met has revived the aesthetically challenged George Tsypin production only once since 2002, perhaps due to the difficulty of finding so large a Russian-capable cast for this epic score. This is regrettable, since Prokofiev’s opera is among the greatest.)
Hvorostovsky was a consummate Eugene Onegin, haughty and aristocratic. The Met’s now sadly discarded Robert Carsen production of Tchaikovsky’s opera seemed made for him: during the polonaise at Prince Gremin’s palace, Onegin’s valets strip him down to his bare chest to dress him for the ball. Hvorostovsky’s stallion musculature undoubtedly distracted more than a few audience members from the music.
Verdi was a constant among Hvorostovsky’s operatic offerings; a precious video from his career-launching win at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989 documents an intense performance of the harmonically haunting Rodrigo arias from Don Carlo. But his Verdi involvement deepened over the years, even if his Italian diction remained puzzling. After his cancer diagnosis in 2015, he took time off from his treatment to appear at the Met as the Count di Luna in Il Trovatore opposite Netrebko. The response was rapturous. By good fortune, the performance was captured in the Met’s HD broadcast series.
While the voice was a constant (despite reported problems in the late 1990s due to heavy drinking, a habit he subsequently forswore), Hvorostovsky’s public persona noticeably evolved. In his early career, he projected an aloofness, bordering almost on condescension, toward the audience. On the rare occasions when he smiled, it was with a hint of irony. Yet that reserve melted over time, revealing sun-lit warmth and humor. During a 2006 run of Don Carlo at the Met, Hvorostovsky and German bass René Pape were jointly interviewed for the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s singer series. Hvorostovsky graced the packed audience with a delighted smile upon taking the dais. The interviewer asked the singers to discuss their characters’ feelings. A cheerful Hvorostovsky gamely went along, speculating about Rodrigo’s motivations and his relations to the other characters. When asked for a similar analysis of Filippo, however, Pape coldly pointed out that the Spanish king was a fictional character and had no inner reality. The unfortunate host nervously changed the subject, undoubtedly wishing he could cull the number of his interview subjects.
In 2007, Hvorostovsky took to the stage at Avery Fisher Hall in tight black jeans and black shirt to belt out Soviet-era pop tunes into a hand-held mike, clearly enjoying his turn as a Las Vegas showman as much as the sold-out, heavily Russian audience did. The first half of the program, accompanied by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and Moscow’s Academy of Choral Art, highlighted Hvorostovsky’s commitment to Russian art and folk song. If Hvorostovsky was not as physical an actor as some of his peers in this era of highly theatrical opera, his terrifyingly direct renditions of Russian song remind us of how much emotional significance can be conveyed with voice alone.
Russia and the former Soviet satellites continue to send a torrent of superb musicians into the world, testifying to the lingering hold of the classical tradition in the lands of Borodin, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. Those lucky enough to have heard Hvorostovsky live, however, know that they were privileged to have encountered one of the Olympian voices of our time.
Photo by Yves Forestier/Getty Images