By Lawrence Budmen 

The warm, mellifluous sound of the baritonal voice has long adorned the operatic stages of the world. From the Italians Tito Gobbi and Ettore Bastianini to the Americans Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, and Sherrill Milnes, the Italian operatic repertoire has been heralded by superb singing. In recent years the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky has become a familiar presence at New York's Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Milan's La Scala, and London's Covent Garden. The reasons for Hvorostovsky's international renown were clearly in evidence at his winning performance for the Concert Association of Florida on April 29, 2004 at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach.

Hvorostovsky first achieved acclaim as First Prize Winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition some 15 years ago. (The Second Prize Winner was the superb Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel.) In the intervening years he has specialized in the great Verdi baritone roles, the Russian operatic repertoire, and the title role of Mozart's "Don Giovanni." For his concert Hvorostovsky chose an adventurous program of rarely heard Baroque arias, Italian songs, and Russian romances. The evening proved an impressive demonstration of his versatility and vocal command. 

Hvorostovsky's dark, gorgeous sound has the burnished glow of molten lava. He sings effortlessly at the high and low extremes of the baritonal range. The sheer size and depth of the voice produces vocal splendor. His glorious singing of Ombra mai fu from Handel's "Serse" had a nobility of line and spontaneity of phrase that is extremely rare. (For decades this aria received countless over blown arrangements as Handel's "Largo." Hvorostovsky restored the aria to its original dignity and grace.) He brought deep toned reverence to an aria from Handel's "Brockes Passion." There was vocal weight and strong projection in an excerpt from Handel's glorious "Dettingen Te Deum." Hvorostovsky sang Orribile lo scempio and Se il cor guerriero from Vivaldi's "Tito Manilo" with fiery, bold vocal declamation. There was a caressing vocal sweetness to his rendition of "Si mantiene il mio amor" by Cesti. Always the pure sound of Hvorostovsky's voice was glorious. His Baroque arias defined great singing!

Hvorostovsky brought warmly glowing tone and subtle phrasing to a group of Italian songs, but "Voce e notte," "Dicitenello vuie," and "O Sole mio" simply do not sound right in the baritonal range. For all the beauty of Hvorostovsky's singing, this repertoire is definitely tenor terrain. In three Russian Romances, the baritone was on home turf. Hvorostovsky owns this repertoire! He captured the brooding pathos of "Misty Morning" by Abas. There was vigor and a sense of fun in his version of "The Troika Speeds" by Bulakhov - his voice echoing the sleigh bells. For sheer beauty of sound, it would be hard to equal Hvorostovsky's delivery of "The Lonely Coach Bell Rings" by Gurilyov. He was joined in the Russian group by Style of Five, a lively folk instrumental group which augmented the orchestral forces. 

Hvorostovsky received first rate support from the outstanding Moscow Chamber Orchestra (with the addition of a few local musicians) under Constantine Orbelian. This fine ensemble was formed in the mid1950's by the violist-conductor Rudolf Barshai, a friend of the composer Dimitri Shostakovich and the pianist Sviatoslav Richter. (Now in his late seventies, Barshai is still an active conductor in Europe.) Now under the baton of Orbelian for over a decade, this orchestra played with a fiery staccato attack and exciting virtuosity. Orbelian perfectly delineated the wit and musical sarcasm in the orchestral version of Alfred Schnittke's "Suite in the Old Style." (At his recent Miami recital, Vadim Gluzman played the original version of this score for solo violin.) In this charming work, Schnittke produced wonderfully dissonant harmonics a la Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" - stylish neo-classicism. Orbelian broadly paced the noble beauty of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck's "Orfeo ed Eurydice." By contrast the Entrance of the Queen of Sheba from Handel's "Solomon" was taken at a rapid clip. Even more impressive at displaying the ensemble's virtuosity was the Furioso movement from Luigi Boccherini's "La Casa del Diavolo." This music was played with an edgy brilliance and vehemence that was exhilarating. For sheer fun Shalov's "Valenki" with Bayan soloist Valentine Zavirukha was a delightful folk swirl cum balalaika - conducted with vigor and ebullience by Orbelian. 

Dmitri Hvorostovsky possesses one of the great operatic voices of our time. His intelligent, challenging program and musical generosity produced one of the finest vocal performances of the season, ably abetted by a superb instrumental ensemble. An evening of vocal splendor! 

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