Turbo-charged arias: Nino Surguladze in recital

Nino Surguladze: Rosenblatt Recital ***

Wigmore Hall, 10th February 2014

I wonder if Georgian mezzo-soprano Nino Surguladze is a secret fan of Top Gear? She certainly took Jeremy Clarkson’s maxim of “Power!” to heart in the operatic opening half to her Rosenblatt Recital at Wigmore Hall. Her recital’s opening volley pinned the audience to the backs of their seats. The composer? Mozart. He’s usually a reliable recital opener, allowing a singer to gauge the size and acoustic of the hall with an audience present. Surguladze, however, offered a turbo-charged reading of Sesto’s “Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio” from La clemenza di Tito, immediately displaying her wares – a molasses-dark mezzo – at full throttle, regardless of its appropriateness in such repertoire. Her voice sounded far too big for the Hall at this volume and she was unable to negotiate the tricky runs at the end without serious lapses in intonation.Pictures of Nino Surguladze

On paper, her programme seemed oddly upside-down, the first half packed with operatic arias, counter-balanced by a second half made up of German Lieder. The rest of her operatic arsenal made a similar impact to her Mozart. Surguladze has a hugely attractive voice, not unlike Olga Borodina’s in quality, but employed it either in the wrong repertoire or with a lack of appropriate style. In many ways, it was an old-fashioned approach to classical and bel canto singing. “O mio Fernando” from Donizetti’s La favorita opened with lavish tone and dramatic recitative and she sang much of the aria with a fine legato, but the cabaletta exposed a considerable weakness; by forcing her voice far more than was necessary in such a small hall, her intonation slips, her tone hardening on high notes. It similarly affected her performance of Cuniza’s aria “Oh, chi torna l’ardente pensiero” from Verdi’s first opera, Oberto. Her diction was frequently cloudy.

The outlook brightened further into her programme. Surguladze seemed more suited to the final two items in the first half – “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson et Dalila and Princess de Bouillon’s “Acerba voluttà” from Adriana Lecouvreur. She presented a haughty, magisterial Dalila and one could quite imagine Samson succumbing to her demands through fear she might sock him one! She presented some interesting French vowels, not always correct and not always consistent (tendresse, ivresse) and there was a brief memory lapse to contend with, but there was much to impress too. Her “Acerba voluttà” was of the scorching, scenery-chewing, Agnes Baltsa-esque variety. Verismo is certainly a strength.

After such a performance, a second half of German lieder wasn’t a tempting prospect. The post-interval platform included a music stand, possibly due to the memory lapse in the Saint-Saëns, or possibly for added security in unfamiliar repertoire. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence, except perhaps in the performer herself, who then delivered an assured recital of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. In “Frühlingstraum”, from Winterreise, suddenly light and sunshine radiated through the clouds as she proved that, volume-wise, less is so often more. “Gretchen am Spinnrade” was heartfelt, with varied dynamics, pianist Gianluca Marcianò providing the restless spinning wheel accompaniment. Surguladze’s German was decent, with just the odd slip or misreading. Schubert’s “Die junge Nonne” also found her restrained, actually seeming more comfortable in lieder than in the operatic repertoire.

Schumann’s “Widmung” was a little breathless and vibrato-laden, but revealed a glowing, sunny tone, followed by a sensitive piano postlude. The same composer’s “Aus den hebräischen Gesängen” from his Op.25 Myrthen found her slipping briefly back into blasting away at the opening, before almost caressing the vocal line in the middle section. It was certainly a dark, dramatic reading.

Brahms’ “Am Sonntag Morgen” unveiled another huge wash of sound, while her low notes were almost contralto-ish in colour in “Wie Melodien zieht es mir”. The following song from that Op.105 set, “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” was well judged. She then displayed the humour of “Vergebliches Ständchen” (“Futile Serenade”) beautifully, communicating the text well as a girl’s would-be lover serenades her in vain, her door remaining stubbornly locked as he stands in the icy cold.

Anyone who recalled Surguladze’s delightful, wide-eyed Olga in the Steven Pimlott’s 2006 production of Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden may have wished for some Russian repertoire. How I’d have loved to hear her in a few Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky romances! This wish was heightened with her encore, a Georgian song by Alexei Machavariani, where Surguladze’s beautifully shaded dynamics, including a melting pianissimo, were a far cry from her Mozart and Donizetti. A curate’s egg of a recital, then, in which the warmly-anticipated arias disappointed and the lieder surprised.

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.

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