Baritone who came in from the cold

Siberia may sound an unlikely starting point for a world-class singer, but tonight at the Royal Opera, audiences will hear how far one man has come, Nick Kimberley writes.

Where the tenor offers all the exuberance of emotional ejaculation, the baritone is serious, considered, cerebral: in a word, grown-up. Not that baritones aren't capable of providing visceral thrills; ask anyone who remembers the final of the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, in which Bryn Terfel and Dmitri Hvorostovsky slugged it out, note for wrenching note.

Hvorostovsky was the winner on points, but it was a close-run thing (Terfel won the Lieder prize). Both singers have gone on to international success, on the concert platform and in the opera house. Tonight, the Royal Opera gives this country its first chance to hear Hvorostovsky in Mozart, singing the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro. The role marks another significant move in a carefully plotted career. Mind you, if Hvorostovsky's father had had his way, his son might have been a sculptor instead of a singer: growing up in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Hvorostovsky fils made his own toy animals out of wood and plastic, but when proud Dad took them to the local school, the art teacher was not impressed.

Later, if Dmitri had had his way, he might have become a pop singer. "I wasn't a very successful pupil at the ordinary school but, from the age of seven, I spent seven years studying music. Then I had a break from music studies for two years, and started performing rock, disco, a bit of jazz. I was quite tall, my voice was already quite masculine, and it was a way to show off in front of my classmates. It got me used to the stage, I felt very comfortable, but it was a nightmare for my father, who didn't want me to spoil my voice. When parents try to stop their child doing something, the child tries even harder to do it. I was quite stubborn about my obsession with pop music."

And so a star was born - but not a pop star, although Hvorostovsky's sultry, dark-eyed features might have stood him in good stead. No doubt he'd proved his point as regards teenbeat rebellion, because, he recalls, "Soon I realised my voice

was developing in other directions. I was a bit of a maverick among my friends, anyway, and my voice was too rich for what were often rather simple rock-band exercises."

Presumably somewhat relieved, his father enrolled him in the equivalent of a sixth-form musical college. "I was 19 when I left in 1982 and, thank God, the Arts Institute had just opened in Krasnoyarsk. I auditioned, and was taken into the class of Yekatherima Yofel, with whom I studied for four years. Then I joined the Krasnoyarsk Opera as an understudy."

There he soon became a principal artist. "I was 23 years old, which was quite early, but it was exciting, and it was a tremendous opportunity. My repertoire was lyric roles, many of which I still perform: Yeletsky from Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, the title-role in Eugene Onegin... Then I went to what was a kind of market for singers: every year, the best young singers gathered in one place and sang their programme. I realised that I was doing pretty well, and I had offers from regional opera houses, but I didn't take any of them up. I decided to stay in Krasnoyarsk. Better to test myself in local competitions, then perhaps in international competitions, which would lead to offers from the Bolshoi [in Moscow] and the Kirov [in St Petersburg] - they were the Russian theatres I'd targeted, and I wasn't prepared to work anywhere else."

There's confidence, rather than arrogance, in Hvorostovsky's voice as he says this. He did indeed go on to test himself in competitions, first locally, as planned, in the Glinka Competition, which he won in 1987; then internationally: Toulouse in 1988, Cardiff in 1989. Some critics have suggested that Hvorostovsky's career took off rather too quickly after Cardiff, and the singer admits, "Now I can understand that perhaps my preparation wasn't good enough. I was less nervous then than I am now. Now I understand more; then I was fearless, I took it for granted. I made the decision to become a freelance singer; it was simply a new life for me to begin. I left Krasnoyarsk with my wife and step-daughter, and began to travel, living in miserable hotels around Russia. That was all right, we were young. Then I was given an apartment in Moscow, but it wasn't comfortable there: we had a robbery, strange telephone calls, we had to change our telephone number often. And there were threats. I had to hire a driver, and a bodyguard for my daughter. I realised that, to continue my life, and my career, I should probably move abroad; and because I had my agent and friends here, I moved to London."

When I venture to suggest that critics have expressed disappointment that his voice is not bigger, he responds carefully, reasonably. "I'm not an artist who shouts. If I do shout, I'm doing the wrong things. Perhaps I might wish that my voice was larger, so that I could do other repertoire, perhaps even bass parts like Boris Godunov, but I'll get there eventually. My voice is my instrument, and it's a beautiful, soft, unique instrument. Singing the right repertoire, the voice grows up, along with your physique: I've put on 10 kilos since the beginning of my career - mostly muscle, thank God. Singing is very physical work, and I take a lot of exercise. And my brain is growing too, I hope. I'm still young, I've taken it gradually. Over the coming years I can allow myself to tackle roles I've been dreaming of: the operas of Verdi, my favourite composer, and next year in Geneva I'm doing my first Don Giovanni. That's one of the main steps in my career."

In the meantime, there's Figaro. He first sang the role of the philandering Count - whose seigneurial intentions towards Figaro's fiance sets the opera's whole "mad day" in motion - two years ago in Salzburg, in a production by Luc Bondy, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. A high-profile role debut, he admits: "Perhaps it wasn't such a smart idea to do my first Mozart in Salzburg [the composer's birthplace], but I did all right."

His director for the new Royal Opera staging is Patrick Young. "I'm enjoying working with him," he says. "His approach makes it a real chamber opera; and, having sung the role before, I can be more relaxed, more co-operative in terms of staging. I like the way Patrick works: you're not given orders, you're given suggestions. It's more about participation, which I prefer. I feel I'm ready for Mozart now."

Only days before our conversation, the Russian composer Georgii Sviridov died, aged 82. Sviridov wrote a song-cycle, St Petersburg, especially for Hvorostovsky, who has also recorded the composer's Russia Cast Adrift (for Phillips Classics). A student and friend of Shostakovich, Sviridov wrote music that, while fitting the dictates of Soviet Socialist Realism, had a broodingly emotional quality that suits Hvorostovsky perfectly. It's encouraging to find a singer of Hvorostovsky's status prepared to tackle contemporary work, and he is obviously saddened by the loss of a collaborator. "His musical language is quite simple and, unlike most contemporary vocal music, it has beautiful melodies, written to the most wonderful poetry: Pushkin, Sergei Esenin, Alexander Blok. When I sing it, I try to sing it as if it's Tchaikovsky. I've experienced the way this music can communicate: I sang the Western premiere of Russia Cast Adrift in Los Angeles in 1994, and I'd never imagined that such an audience, which can be quite lazy, would respond this way: a standing ovation, people crying."

Hvorostovsky's plans for the Royal Opera include two Verdi roles: Germont pere in La Traviata; and (on tour) Francesco, the would-be parricide, in the Schiller-based Sturm und Drang melodrama I Masnadieri (The Robbers). The latter role particularly appeals to him: "It's such an evil, evil part," he says with glee. "I enjoy playing evil characters. Francesco is very Iago-like - although I guess Iago is kinder. I've been trying to find some redeeming part of the character but no, I can't. It's pure evil." Now what bel canto tenor role can you say that about? Like the devil, the baritone always has the best tunes; and Hvorostovsky's the man to sing them.

'Figaro' opens 7pm tonight, Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2 (booking: 0171-240 6657). Hvorostovsky sings the Count tonight, 21, 23, 26, 28, 30 Jan; Anthony Michaels-Moore sings 22, 24, 27, 29 Jan

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