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Straight out of Siberia

CLASSICAL MUSIC | OPERA

Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky has taken a long road to fame, but he's sure not out of breath.

April 11, 2004|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

New York — Dmitri Hvorostovsky can't wait to get the wig off. The Metropolitan Opera has him wear one of those powdered ones, with a ponytail, for Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades," in which he plays a Russian prince whose fiancee gets wooed away by cavalry officer Placido Domingo. Domingo has to wear a wig too, and so do the singers who play his fellow soldiers, but their hair is not Dmitri Hvorostovsky's hair, a prematurely silver-gray mane that looks as if it belongs on a lion tamer.

"It's become like my trademark," says the 41-year-old Siberian native whose baritone is his other trademark -- especially the "breath control" that gets critics gushing. If you ask whether he has to be careful not to use that ability and show off, he looks at you incredulously and says, "I do show off. I do!" So why not show off the hair as well?

If he was anywhere else, he might have insisted. But this is the Met, "so I do not argue," he says. The rug simply comes off moments after his final curtain call, when he leaves the stage with his sturdy right arm over the shoulder of the great Domingo. Half an hour later, the nobleman's uniform is gone too, replaced by a black leather jacket, as Hvorostovsky emerges from the artists' entrance to Lincoln Center's underground garage and wades into several dozen opera fans waiting patiently for a glimpse or an autograph.

Some are there just for Domingo, certainly, but many call out "Dima!" -- shorthand for Dmitri -- or reach out with programs for Hvorostovsky to sign. Most of these fans are women. "The ladies just drop dead when he walks on stage," says Beverly Sills, the soprano turned Met chairwoman. "He comes on and flashes that smile and the battle is over."

The cliche of opera is that the tenor always gets the girl, even if he's 63 and sags a bit, but Domingo has acknowledged that it might be necessary to tweak the formula, offstage at least. He came up with a revised one the first time he met Hvorostovsky's wife, Florence, who is half-Swiss, half-Italian and has her own remarkable head of hair, a cascading tangle of dark curls. "The baritone has more gorgeous woman," Domingo conceded upon seeing her, "but the tenor has more money."

It's nearing midnight when the baritone with the gorgeous wife signs his last autograph and says, "Let's go," then leads her across Broadway for a bite to eat. He seems the epitome of the artist triumphant, and a man without a care -- except that neither life nor opera ever plays out that easily.

Standing out in L.A.

Hvorostovsky's PR people have touted his recital at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion next Sunday as his "first time ever" performing in Los Angeles, but that's a touch of puffery -- he appeared at the Hollywood Bowl in 1993 and the Music Center in 1994 and, in fact, his history in L.A. dates to before he was Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The concert programs transliterated his name as Kvorostovsky 15 years ago, when he made his first trip to the United States as a junior member of a tour led by an aging Soviet mezzo-soprano, Irina Arkhipova. Her six-member troupe drew no more than 200 people to the 1,270-seat Wilshire Ebell Theatre on April 16, 1989, and The Times' music critic then, Martin Bernheimer, had a field day recounting the "embarrassing" night. Other than Arkhipova, the name performer was her "tenor caricature" husband, a Bolshoi veteran who "bleated noisily, even painfully" at times.

But the Times critic also reported on a "revelation" -- the tour's 26-year-old baritone from Siberia. "If he always sings as he did on this occasion," Bernheimer wrote, "he could have the world at his feet." Perhaps as significant was that the review's three paragraphs on the then unknown said nothing about his looks. Every word focused on his technical and interpretive skills, which clearly were the product of old-school Russian training.

Americans may think of Siberia as another Wild West, and Hvorostovsky's accounts of his background don't dispel that notion: how his great-grandfather was "chain-walked" there for "certain crimes" and how he himself was prone to nose-breaking street brawls as a kid; then how he got his first professional gigs as a teenager, as the vodka-swigging frontman for a heavy metal band that performed at a campground. But his city, Krasnoyarsk, had two opera houses along with radar installations designed to detect U.S. missiles. And the young Dmitri, however rowdy, enjoyed sculpting and the piano along with soccer. By the time he was 16, he had settled down to pursue his destiny.

Hvorostovsky says the turning point came after he stayed out all night partying with his bandmates, and his father, a chemical engineer -- and an accomplished amateur singer -- found him the next morning, hung over and stinking of cigarettes, with a girl. "He never touched me," the baritone recalls. "He gave me a look. He left and walked out."

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