'In 30 seconds I saw she was a star'

When Valery Gergiev of the Kirov says that he doesn't want a newspaper article to appear on one of his protégées, you know that you're probably on to something very big. And that's exactly what the Russian singer Ekaterina Semenchuk looks set to be, says Michael Church
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The Independent Culture

If I were a gambler, I'd put serious money on a 23-year-old Russian mezzo who will make her discreet solo debut in a Suffolk church tomorrow. You may possibly have glimpsed her in the supporting role of Sonya in the Kirov War and Peace, or as the peasant boy in the Kirov's concert version of The Snow Maiden. But if you haven't heard of Ekaterina Semenchuk, and are within striking distance of Alderton, get yourself there. If the programme of Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and some seldom-heard songs by Balakirev is interesting, what is done with them may be historic.

If I were a gambler, I'd put serious money on a 23-year-old Russian mezzo who will make her discreet solo debut in a Suffolk church tomorrow. You may possibly have glimpsed her in the supporting role of Sonya in the Kirov War and Peace, or as the peasant boy in the Kirov's concert version of The Snow Maiden. But if you haven't heard of Ekaterina Semenchuk, and are within striking distance of Alderton, get yourself there. If the programme of Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and some seldom-heard songs by Balakirev is interesting, what is done with them may be historic.

Why? Well, it is always significant when Valery Gergiev takes a shine to a singer, and he's currently putting the inexperienced Semenchuk in a lot of big roles. It's also significant that he doesn't want this article to appear - I'll explain why later. This piece is intended as a tribute, both to a singular talent and to the quixotic collaboration which allowed it to ripen. It is also meant as a reminder that Russia's well of musical excellence is not running dry.

My story begins in the unlikely context of a fund-raising soirée at Christie's, where two young singers from the Kirov Academy were being paraded for a well-heeled coterie. First came a tenor called Daniil Stoda, whose easy grace with Glinka and Gliÿre marked him immediately as out of the ordinary. Then a girl appeared with a deformed face - Ekaterina Semenchuk's right cheek was blown up like a football. But her voice had unusual power and beauty, with an iron hardness in the low notes, and each song was shaped to bring out its internal drama. You could feel the frisson in the room.

Two months later, while researching an article on the Kirov in St Petersburg, I re-encountered these singers at a pancake party where everyone - barring interlopers - was expected to do a turn. This time Stoda was at the piano, accompanying some fellow-academicians. They were all stunning in their different ways, but Semenchuk stood out once again.

First, amid general merriment, she delivered Carmen's trademark "Habanera" with such mockingly predatory aggression that I was relieved she cast my fellow-guest Stephen Isserlis as José: by the end, he was wishing the floor would swallow him up. Then she abandoned the formalities of Western opera and sang some unaccompanied Russian folk songs, transforming herself into a spirit of the steppes: shouting, foot-stamping, untameably wild.

Those who work with Semenchuk all testify to her impetuous nature and instinctive generosity, as well as her rigorous professionalism. Her mentor Larissa Gergieva, who will accompany her tomorrow, regards her as a born stage artist: "She has an uncanny feel for atmosphere, and her voice is a gift from the gods. Such things can't be taught. And she has a good soul, a noble heart. What the Christie's audience didn't know was that she was in considerable pain when she sang to them."

Bad dentistry - the Russian curse - borne with good Russian stoicism. And as Gergieva points out, her life is anything but easy: since her father's sudden death last year, she has had to be the family breadwinner. Her daily routine in St Petersburg - studying by day, performing by night - starts and ends with a two-hour bus journey through the provincial wilds.

Semenchuk herself alludes to none of this. She's bookish - currently delving into 19th-century Russian novelists and Symbolist poetry - and voracious to absorb all the music she can lay her hands on. She started playing the piano at eight in her home town of Minsk, then graduated to the guitar and the accordion, on which she initially thought she might build a career. "But I always knew I had a voice, and that even at 12 it was unusually low." She acquired her folk songs by listening to peasant singers, but despite her natural empathy, refuses to take them too seriously: "My only ambition is to be an opera singer."

While she and her friends were in London for the Kirov season, I persuaded the BBC World Service to record five of them: each agreed to sing on both sides of the musical divide, first an aria, then some folk-songs from their own particular corner of Russia. And again Semenchuk dazzled, as the resulting hour-long programme on 17 September (4pm) will prove. What listeners won't see was the dramatic physicality of her performances.

So no wonder Gergiev is smitten. But when I ask him to comment on his new protégée, he gets more than a bit shirty. "It's too early for a big article in a London paper. These things can go to Russian singers' heads and ruin them - I learnt this the hard way with Galina Gorchakova. After the first articles in the Western press, she really believed she was better than Callas - and where is she now?

"I still like the voice, and I still think she should be singing as well as Renee Fleming. But the difference is that Fleming works like hell on preparation, while Gorchakova thinks she doesn't need to bother.

"Look, if I started believing all the things that are written about me in the West, I'd think I was bigger than Beethoven. I have seen too many promising Russian singers not fulfilling their promise. And in many cases, the Western media contributed stupendously to the fall of their careers."

But given that the article on Semenchuk will appear, what is his verdict? "She has promise. My sister was the first to spot her, and it only took me 30 seconds to understand her potential. We've given her very intensive musical training, as well as language-coaching. Some of the things we've set her, she has done well, others not yet well enough. She has to continue her studies."

He doesn't regret casting her in the key role of Ascanio in his Salzburg Benvenuto Cellini this month. One close associate thinks his hostility to publicity for Semenchuk is simple fear: that like so many of his other discoveries - including Gorchakova, Olga Borodina, and Elena Prokina - she will too soon be wooed away by other companies.

The Kirov Academy may be only three years old, but it's already promising to transform the operatic landscape. No fewer than five of its students, including Stoda and Semenchuk, have been invited to take part in Placido Domingo's Operalia Competition in Paris on 5 September. If some win prizes - and Semenchuk has already won two big Russian ones - the credit will belong in no small measure to Ms Gergieva's indefatigable tuition.

But some will also belong to the Academy's supporters in the West, who routinely send cash to keep these impoverished young singers housed, clothed and fed.

Saturday 26 Aug, 7.30pm, Alderton Church, Alderton, Woodbridge, Suffolk. The concert is part of the Summer on the Peninsula Festival (01394 411347)

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