Love in bloom

Everything about Aleksandra Kurzak’s new disc is a variation on the term “fioritura.”  From the fuchsia-colored album design, with the decoratively curvaceous soprano brandishing a bouquet of flowers wearing a patterned ensemble of similar hue, to a collection of arias and scenes that bloom through her spectacular coloratura facility, Bel Raggio is a thing of beauty.

While her first album was a “calling card” recital, designed to showcase her talent across a continuum of popular repertoire, Bel Raggio is devoted exclusively to the work of Gioacchino Rossini.  The soprano has made the works of the “master from Pesaro” something of a specialty and his operas have figured prominently in her European career.  She adds yet another Rossini heroine to her repertoire when she essays Countess Adele in Le Comte Ory for La Scala in July 2014.  

The opening number is “Bel raggio” from Semiramide, the title track for the album.  Kurzak credits Joan Sutherland for the ornamentation observed here, including two brilliantly delivered high E’s.   She renders the dramatic situation with immediacy and detail rather than the usual vapid facelessness, supplying anxious anticipation in the first section and excitable rapture in “Dolce pensiero.”  Scales and passagework are clean, precise and fearlessly executed, the high notes breathtaking in their ease and radiance, evoking the required frisson.

Flashy showpieces like this are interspersed with more lyrical numbers, demonstrating Kurzak’s firm sense of line and graceful piano singing.  She offers an unusually (and arrestingly) girlish sound in “Selva opaca” from Guglielmo Tell, in contrast the more grand-voiced ladies typically associated with this aria.  Admittedly, Kurzak lacks some of the color and tonal variety of Tebaldi, Crespin, Caballé and others but her singularly beautiful timbre is notable for its sheen and glow.

She is even more in her element as Amenaide in Tancredi, a role she has performed on stage and in concert under the baton of Rene Jacobs.  Kurzak inhabits the contained sentiment of her preghiera “Giusto Dio che umile adoro” with eloquence, uncorking the dramatic tension superbly in the mounting excitement of the subsequent exchange between Amenaide and the approaching offstage chorus.

In the more famous harp-accompanied prayer from L’assedio di Corinto, she spins a gossamer legato line to ravishing effect.  Unlike many modern day singers, Kurzak is unafraid to use portamento as both an expressive and stylistic device.

The range of Rossini’s talent is well represented here from his most famous work, Il barbiere di Siviglia, to such rarely encountered operas as Sigismondo and Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra.  The former attracted Kurzak as the opera concerns a historical king of Poland.  A passionate advocate for the music and culture of her native country, the soprano states in the liner notes that she wished “to leave a small Polish mark on this CD.”  She is delightful in the heroine Aldimira’s aria “O tranquillo soggiorno,” her voice blending beautifully with the elaborate woodwind scoring and striking the right note of reverie and repose.  The work was a failure and Rossini recycled some of it for his later operas, including an easily recognizable piece of bridge music in “Una voce poco fa.”

Rosina proper is represented here by the duet “Dunque io son,” in which Kurzak’s justly celebrated interpretation can be appreciated for its playful brio and breezy singing.  She is joined here by the Polish baritone Artur Rucinski as Figaro, an attractive-voiced singer but no equal for his leading lady in scintillating coloratura.

Rucinski appears again as the Poet in Fiorilla’s scena “Squallida veste, e bruna  . . . Caro padre, madre amata” from Il Turco in Italia, an opera Kurzak has performed to great acclaim at Covent Garden (and will reprise there in a future season).  A satire of opera seria, the piece benefits enormously from Kurzak’s tongue-in-cheek delivery, with an audible smile and wink in the tone.

But the crown jewel of this disc is the scena “Ami alfine? . . . Tace la tromba altera” from Matilde di Shabran, whose title role served as a breakout opportunity for Kurzak at the Royal Opera House back in 2008.  This is flat-out astonishing singing.  Not since Beverly Sills have I heard a singer who communicates such a palpable and enchanting delight in her own virtuosity, without the slightest hint of self-consciousness or artifice.

She not only dashes off exhausting, bugle-like roulades with precision in the cabaletta but does so with beguiling charm and luminous tone.  Her deliciously teasing manner in the opening passage is downright sexy and perfectly captures the alluring character of Matilde’s paean to love.  This track represents coloratura singing of the absolutely highest accomplishment and I have listened to it non-stop since receiving the disc.

Pier Giorgio Morandi summons capable playing from the Sinfonia Varsovia but does press hard in “stretta” sections.  The Warsaw Chamber Choir contributes enthusiastically throughout but their vibrato-less singing sometimes comes off like a parody of Chanticleer or Celtic Women.  At least Decca went to the trouble of supplying them:  comprimario and choral contributions were noticeably missing from Kurzak’s earlier CD.  The engineering and sound are first-rate.

In summary, an essential purchase for lovers of great vocalism.  At 35, Kurzak is at the height of her powers and this album is a celebration of her incredible virtues.  Rarely have artistry, technique, voice and physical beauty aligned to such captivating effect.  May she retain a bloom on the rose for years to come!