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Music : Gorchakova, Leiferkus: From Russia With Arias

November 14, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Once upon a bad time, not so long ago, there was an Iron Curtain that brutally segregated the world of music. For most impractical purposes, it kept Americans off stages in the Soviet Union and, worse for us, kept several generations of wonderful artists away from halls harboring the lyric muse in the wicked West.

All that is changing now, almost literally with a vengeance. Maria Guleghina opened the opera season in Costa Mesa as a mediocre Aida. Barseg Tumanyan opened the season in Los Angeles as a bland Mephistopheles. James Levine's favorite Verdi baritone is Vladimir Chernov. When the Music Center revives "Otello" in May, the treacherous title role will be shared by Placido Domingo and a relative unknown, Vladimir Bogachov.

The biggest success thus far in a not-too-successful San Francisco Opera season has been Prokofiev's "Fiery Angel" in a fanciful production lifted lock, stock and demons from what used to be called the Kirov Theater in what used to be called Leningrad. The central roles were entrusted to Sergei Leiferkus, a baritone whose international career now makes return visits to his native St. Petersburg rare, and Galina Gorchakova, a Siberian soprano remembered for her steely-robust Madama Butterfly in Los Angeles last season.

Saturday night, Leiferkus and Gorchakova came to Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena for a duo-recital devoted to much opera and a little song. Liked him, much of the time. Worried about her.

Leiferkus does not command what one would describe as an exceptionally rich and sensual sound. His tone is slender, grainy, even a bit raw. He doesn't invoke automatic comparisons with his great bel-canto predecessor, Pavel Lisitsian, whose pathetic U.S. career consisted of a single Amonasro at the Met in 1960.

But Leiferkus uses the resources at his disposal very cannily. He knows how to act with his voice, how to inflect the text with subtle meaning (even in oddly accented Italian). He even knows how to project character while standing still.

He commands a broad range of dynamics and colors, strong lungs, a sense of style and a technique that enables him to make much out of not so much. He is, in short, a thinker as well as a singer.

Gorchakova happens to be blessed with superior vocal equipment. Ironically, she doesn't use it nearly as well.

Her big, broad, dark-tinged soprano is a remarkable dramatic instrument. She actually can move it around coloratura passages with reasonable flexibility, some breathing problems notwithstanding. Her interpretations tend to be as stiff as her demeanor, however, and her temperament tends toward placidity. She settles for generalities just when the listener most wants specifics.

More troubling, she seems unable (or unwilling) to sing any high note softly--or even half-softly. Explosions are her forte, and her fortes are certainly explosive. Sometimes they are pinched and edgy, too.

Her climactic assaults might seem imposing in Brunnhilde's battle cry or Turandot's demand for blood. They are distinctly grating in Tosca's prayer for compassion. Perhaps Gorchakova ought to spend some time listening to recordings by her compatriot Galina Vishnevskaya, or, even better, Zinka Milanov.

*

Opera with piano accompaniment seldom sounds wholly authentic, even when the pianist at hand is the bold, sympathetic and virtuosic Semyon Skigin. The problem is compounded, of course, when the vocal performances are less than idiomatic.

Under the circumstances, the bona-fide Russian excerpts provided the most memorable and most enticing moments on the rather skimpy, oddly balanced program. Leiferkus and Gorchakova know what to do with arias from Borodin's "Prince Igor," Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Tsar's Bride" and Tchaikovsky's "Enchantress," not to mention the wrenching finale of Tchaikovsky's "Yevgeny Onegin." The music is in their blood.

To a lesser degree, one also had to admire Leiferkus' angry quasi-Italianate passion as Verdi's Conte di Luna, his unbridled cackle and snarl as Iago and his soft long-winded legato as the dying Rodrigo. When the line didn't rise too high, one could appreciate Gorchakova's arching, all-purpose yearning as Verdi's Leonoras (both "Trovatore" and "Forza").

More poignant, however, was the fragile sentiment--perfectly focused, never distorted--in songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Too bad the agenda mustered only four.

The sole encore, wildly applauded like everything else, was "La ci darem la mano" from Mozart's "Don Giovanni." Here Leiferkus turned out to be a surprisingly suave seducer and Gorchakova a surprisingly coy victim. The rumor that this would be followed by "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" proved sadly unfounded.

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