Dazzling technique, psychedelic cover: Rossini from Aleksandra Kurzak

Rossini: Bel raggio; Aleksandra Kurzak (Decca) *****

aleksandra-kurzak-bel-raggio-deccaSinger cancellations, though greeted by some with groans of disappointment, frequently offer opportunities for less garlanded singers to step in and make a name for themselves. In 2008, Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak replaced Annick Massis in a production of Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran, much anticipated since the Decca recording from the Pesaro Festival with a similar cast. Kurzak wasn’t exactly a newcomer to the Covent Garden stage, but her appearances as Matilde were sensational, quite stealing the limelight from Juan Diego Flórez – no mean feat in itself. She has since delighted audiences there with her Fiorilla and Rosina, so an all-Rossini recital disc is especially welcome for her second solo album.

Kurzak has a technique which dazzles just as vividly as her engaging stage presence and from its initial spin, this disc left me in a blissful state of uncritical delight, even more so than its predecessor ‘Gioia!’. In a blow by blow, phrase by phrase comparison with some illustrious sopranos, I regularly preferred Kurzak’s performances.

Let’s begin at the very top by considering “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Semiramide, the disc’s title track and one which pits her against the very best – Joan Sutherland. In her booklet conversation with John Allison, Kurzak reveals that she follows Sutherland’s ornamentation because she was so instrumental in making the aria famous. However, this is no slavish imitation; Kurzak is her own woman and I found her interpolated coloratura (at the higher modern orchestral pitch) as pristine and every bit as thrilling as La Stupenda’s, with diction of far greater clarity.

Three of the arias in this collection turn up on a recent recital disc from Julia Lezhneva, of which “Bel raggio lusinghier” is one. I’ve been impressed by the young Russian soprano in baroque opera, but her Rossini is caught too early in her career. Kurzak whizzes around coloratura where Lezhneva treads too carefully. Both discs feature the Sinfonia Varsovia, in far more imaginative and responsive form for Pier Giorgio Morandi than for Marc Minkowski, whose flaccid conducting hampers Naïve’s disc. In Matilde’s aria from Guglielmo Tell (there are three different Rossini Matildes represented in this recital!), Kurzak demonstrates her superior technique, able to support her through to the end of phrases in a single arc, whereas Lezhneva is taxed by the long phrases. Kurzak’s pianissimo high notes are exquisite. Her voice has a brighter, more silvery glint than Mirella Freni’s creamy lyric soprano in Riccardo Chailly’s recording of the complete opera, but both interpretations are to cherish. Kurzak and Lezhneva are also pitched against each other in “Giusto ciel! in tal periglio” from L’assedio di Corinto; lyric Rossini at his very finest – a beautiful, harp-accompanied prayer where the Polish soprano spins the line more tenderly.

Comparison with Massis in “Tace la tromba altera” in Matilde di Shabran reveals the French soprano’s performance a good deal untidier (although it was recorded live), Kurzak firing off spectacular ornamentation in the reprise. In Amenaide’s prayer from Tancredi, Kurzak’s competition comes in the form of Sumi Jo, in a live performance on Naxos. They match each other for the bell-like precision of their coloratura, but Jo’s vocal line is more brittle. Kurzak’s perfect trill is displayed here. An appropriate rarity is Aldimira’s “Oggetto amabile” from Sigismondo, the title character being a Polish king.

For the overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini famously employed a pre-existing one from Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra. He also pinched a little orchestral phrase from Matilde’s aria “Sento un’interna voce” – sensitively sung here – which was later to turn up in “Una voce poco fa”. Kurzak’s minx of a Rosina was represented on her first disc by that aria. Here, she is joined by baritone Artur Ruciński, a fellow Pole, as Figaro in a witty account of their Act 1 duet “Dunque io son”. Ruciński isn’t quite capable of matching Kurzak dizzying vocal athleticism, but offers lively characterization.

Kurzak draws great drama and meaning from the texts. Listen to Nino Machaidze as Fiorilla reading Don Geronio’s letter casting her out from his house in Il turco in Italia. She may as well be reading a telephone directory. Her following recitative is perfectly adequate, but the reaction in Kurzak’s voice is palpable. Machaidze’s uneven performance is very ordinary, while Kurzak outmanoeuvres her at every turn, with a fantastic coloratura display to conclude the disc.

In a bid to salvage some critical credibility, I detected an occasional scoop between notes in Fiorilla’s “Squallida veste” and I would have preferred “Selva opaca” from Guglielmo Tell in the original French (“Sombre forêt”), but these are microscopic niggles. I can even forgive the disc’s psychedelic car crash of a cover, which imparts a certain quirky charm. Simply outstanding.

Rossini: Bel raggio; Aleksandra Kurzak; Artur Ruciński; Warsaw Chamber Choir; Sinfonia Varsovia/ Pier Giorgio Morandi (Decca) 478 3553
Semiramide, Guillaume Tell, L’assedio di Corinto:
Julia Lezhneva; Sinfonia Varsovia/ Marc Minkowski (Naïve) V5221 (2010)
Joan Sutherland; London Symphony Orchestra/ Richard Bonynge (Decca, 2 discs) 475 7918 (1965-6)
Guglielmo Tell:
Mirella Freni; National Philharmonic Orchestra/ Riccardo Chailly (Decca, 4 discs) 475 7723 (1980)
Matilde di Shabran:
Annick Massis; Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia/ Riccardo Frizza (Decca, 3 discs) 475 7688 (2004)
Sumi Jo; Collegium Instrumentale Brugense/ Alberto Zedda (Naxos, 2 discs) 8.660037-8 (1994)
Il turco in Italia:
Nino Machaidze; Marco Danieli; Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna/ Michele Mariotti (Sony) 88697847042 (2011)

This review originally appeared in International Record Review.

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