Joy in the morning
“Gioia!” is the title of Aleksandra Kurzak‘s debut aria recital, her first international release under a new exclusive contract with Decca Music Group, and—not surprisingly—this writer’s response to the soprano’s sparkling vocalism.
In the liner notes, the Polish soprano explains that the title of this recording was her agent’s suggestion: “He said that he can see the joy on my face when I’m singing. I’ve also heard from fans that listening to me sing makes them smile, because they can tell how much I enjoy performing.”
While I don’t dispute any of that, my “joy” also derives from witnessing a well-trained, prodigiously gifted vocalist rewarded with celebrity. This is no media creation built on a foundation of Botox, unrestrained décolletage and marketing gimmickry. This is not to say Kurzak is less than beautiful—she is! But the emphasis here is rightly where it should be: voice, voice and more voice.
By any measure, this disc is a feast of great singing. The voice is simply gorgeous with a liquid, unforced flow of limpid, pearly tone. Her approach is very instrumental and the round, flute-like appeal of her voice is immediately apparent. She possesses a flawless coloratura technique, with both precision and fleet agility. Her florid singing is refreshingly clean, the scales free of aspirates and devoid of Bartoli-like clucking. Her intonation is perfect. This is singing of uncommon quality, refinement and musicianship.
The disc opens with “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, a recent Kurzak triumph in London and Verona. She sings it in the higher key of F major, allowing her to show off some truly dazzling staccati and acuti. The crystalline high notes glitter and burn but she uses other parts of her voice equally well and sings fully throughout the range. The characterization is flirtatious without resorting to annoying coyness.
Kurzak is much in demand for Mozart’s Susanna and her “Deh, vieni non tardar” demonstrates why. Her rock-steady, poised legato singing and sense of line are evident throughout. What a feminine, beguiling way she has with both text and music! While the vocal line is fairly plain here, Kurzak has employed far more appogiature and ornamentation in live performance.
Anyone with the good fortune to have witnessed Kurzak’s role debut as Lucia di Lammermoor in Seattle last fall already knows she is heavily favored to become her generation’s leading exponent of the iconic Donizetti heroine. She is a compelling storyteller in “Regnava nel silenzio,” conveying the rapt, hypnotic focus required. Her trills are spot on and the inclusion of the cabaletta’s second verse allows her the chance to execute some generous embellishments and interpolated high notes.
Adele’s “Mein Herr Marquis” is a delightful souvenir of her soubrette days as a member of the Hamburg State Opera ensemble. She sings it with natural ease and breezy charm. “O mio babbino caro” may seem an odd choice but her girlish, unaffected manner make a positive impression and—knock me down with a feather—she uses portamenti!
Kurzak made her role debut as Violetta last year in Warsaw and will introduce her portrayal to many of the world’s stages over the next few seasons. She bites into the “E strano” recitative with real passion. “Ah, fors’è lui” is a true reverie, fully capturing the vulnerability of the character’s dilemma. “Sempre libera” has both emotional depth and easily dispatched brilliance—a rare combination in this piece. She caps it all with a thrilling high E-flat.
“Caro nome” is a Kurzak signature number (Gilda was her debut role at La Scala and one familiar to Met audiences). Her sound blends exquisitely with the flutes and the final cadenza is perfectly judged and executed. Again, the flawless intonation is appreciable here.
“Son vergin vezzosa” is the album’s one disappointment. It’s not that Kurzak is unsuited to the role (her first Puritani is scheduled for Bilbao during the 2012-2013 season); rather, the selection misfires because her vocal decoration is overly chaste. The lack of comprimarios and choral support really undercut her here (a drawback throughout the disc). A cautious tempo also doesn’t help.
Kurzak notes that “I feel this piece is particularly appropriate for me because it’s known as the ‘”Aria Polacca” (the Polish aria). It uses the rhythm of the dance mazur, which is the basis of the mazurka.” I can’t help but feel that “Je suis Titania” would have made the same point and provided a more convincing showpiece.
Kurzak is joined by promising Italian tenor Francesco Demuro in “Una parola, o Adina.” The two have sung these parts together at the Wiener Staatsoper and they are a winning duo. Demuro’s warm timbre contrasts nicely with Kurzak’s cooler sound. While listening to this, I had an association to my first experiences hearing Kathleen Battle in her youth. Kurzak displays the same devastatingly seductive purity of tone and simple, direct utterance that made Battle so cherishable.
Musetta’s Waltz is utterly bewitching: Kurzak is content to let the music do its work without layering on fake sexiness and breathy attacks. (Incidentally, she sings her first Mimi for Naples in May 2012.) The disc concludes with a scena from Moniuszko’s The Haunted Manor, a comic work deeply loved by the Polish opera community. It’s a honey of an aria, with a solo violin supplying some virtuosic obbligato accompaniment. Kurzak is proud of her Polish heritage and happily serves as an ambassador for Polish culture.
Omer Meir Wellber provides sensitive support on the podium and both Kurzak and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana are well-served by the recording engineers.
All in all, this is a triumphant offering from an artist whom I believe to be most important vocal discovery of the past five years. This is a long overdue rebuttal to an industry obsessed with Coppertoned divas capable of executing Madonna-like choreography but who couldn’t sing their way out of a Mozart phrase if their lives depended upon it. May Kurzak enjoy the same long and fruitful partnership with Decca that Joan Sutherland did during her career. Highly recommended!