Cher Public

Wish upon a star

At what moment does a “rising star” become simply a “star”? A crucial step toward that operatic pinnacle may have occurred Wednesday evening at the Metropolitan Opera when soprano Sonya Yoncheva triumphed in her first US Violetta. Since its premiere there in 2010, Willy Decker’s starkly devastating production of Verdi’s La Traviata has been waiting for the ideal protagonist to don Wolfgang Gussmann’s iconic red dress and with its sixth soprano she has arrived.

Yoncheva seems poised to join an impressive group of Bulgarian sopranos appearing at the world’s greatest opera houses over the past 40 years including Raina Kabaivanska, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Ghena Dimitrova, Krassimira Stoyanova and Alexandrina Pendatchanska (now Alex Penda). Strikingly lovely with a pale, expressive face, Yoncheva displays a bright, secure soprano with an intriguingly smoky middle register and wields it with a wrenching morbidezza that makes her an ideal exemplar of some of opera’s most heart-breaking heroines.

From her first world-weary entrance during the prelude, this Violetta was striking for being both exceptionally self-possessed and shockingly young, reminding us that Marie Duplessis, on whom Alexandre Dumas based his heroine of La Dame aux Camélias, was just 23 years old when she died. Yoncheva’s courtesan was clearly aware of her attractiveness to men, teasing seductively members of the (apparently) all-male chorus and toying playfully with the love-struck Alfredo of Francesco Demuro.

The great scena that concludes Act I proved a searing glimpse into Violetta’s haunted soul rather than an occasion for vocal display. However, those who obsess about high notes (not written by Verdi) might snipe that Yoncheva eschewed the “expected” E-flat at the end of “Sempre libera.”

With the implacable Germont of Quinn Kelsey, the great Act II duet demonstrated the soprano’s gift for combining strength and vulnerability. Particularly impressive was her exquisite “Dite alla giovine” spun on a merest thread of tone that was still always splendidly audible. Her “Amami Alfredo” may have lacked the ideal amplitude and emotional punch, but “Alfredo, Alfredo” achingly reflected the wounding shock of Alfredo’s brutal denunciation which in Decker’s production has him mercilessly fling wads of cash at the supine Violetta, even stuffing bills between her legs.

Even in productions less bleak than Decker’s I frequently become impatient by the end wanting Violetta to just get on with it and die. Yet Yoncheva made the final act seem not a moment too long as she relished both verses of “Addio del passato.” Miraculously, her vivid determination nearly convinced us that she would recover and find happiness with Alfredo.

Though I’d previously seen it performed by Marina Poplavskaya, Natalie Dessay and Marina Rebeka, Decker’s stark staging of Violetta’s death proved particularly shattering in Yoncheva’s chilling interpretation. Not surprisingly when the curtain rose again to reveal the depleted soprano on that vast empty white stage, the ovation was ear-splitting.

Yet it wasn’t only Yoncheva’s night—Demuro, her ardent Alfredo, has had unexpectedly eventful season at the Met. Scheduled to debut in late December in Traviata, he was called on earlier to be one of the three (!) tenors to replace Ramon Vargas opposite Yoncheva during her Bohème run.

And on the opening night of Traviata last month, the curtain was held for nearly a half an hour while Demuro was rushed in to replace an ailing Stephen Costello who canceled at the last minute. I attended that performance and Demuro proved a real pro. channeling any nervous energy into an intensely appealing portrayal.

Accompanied with unfailing sensitivity by Marco Armiliato, Wednesday’s Alfredo was perhaps less exciting, less emotionally “naked” than at the premiere, but it was still very accomplished. If he lacked the ringing power for the big gambling scene ensemble, he brought a well-schooled, vibrant tenor–complete with a pingy high C for the end of his cabaletta.

Baritone Kelsey has also frequently been called a “rising star” but, like Yoncheva, there was nothing “rising” about his superb Germont. He effortlessly poured forth oceans of handsome mahogany tone, sculpting one of the more eloquent renditions of “Di Provenza” I have heard, rightly earning a hearty ovation for it.

He entered fully into the production’s ice-cold vision of a rigid and brutal Germont who refuses to embrace the shattered Violetta at the end of their duet and who slaps his bereft son when he refuses to accept Violetta’s farewell. When opera-lovers frequently mourn “Where are today’s Verdi baritones?” many have been pointing to Kelsey who has recently had great successes as Rigoletto, di Luna and Ezio in Attila but conspicuously not at the Met. One hopes these sterling Traviatas (replacing the absent Ludovic Tézier) will help to change all that.

Although I missed both her well-received Met debut last season as Gilda and her hastily-scheduled first-ever Mimi there in November, this Violetta was not my first encounter with Yoncheva in New York City. In 2007 her first big “break” was to be selected to be part of “Le Jardin de Voix,” a biennial program by the early-music group Les Arts Florissants to cultivate young singers. Her charismatic “star” quality was apparent from the first as can be seen in a documentary made about that year’s crop of singers.

Each “Jardin” tours widely and I attended its concert at Alice Tully Hall in March of that year, but I simply don’t recall Yoncheva making a particularly striking impression.

However her return to New York three years later with Les Arts Florissants was quite a different matter. A bare-bones production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (on a double-bill with Charpentier’s Actéon) was staged just for that visit to the Brooklyn Academy of Music starring Yoncheva as Dido and I remember not liking her at all. Her interpretation struck me as too melodramatic, too Romantic, too voluptuously sung to fit the very otherwise very restrained and HIP production.

Nonetheless she continued until recently to sing a lot of 17th and 18th century music including a number of shows tied to the Pergolesi tercentenary.

She has also often sung with Emmanuelle Häim and Le Concert d’Astrée with whom she appeared as both Monteverdi’s and Handel’s Poppea.

But I was not surprised when I learned she had won Placido Domingo’s Operalia, the decidedly non-Early Music vocal competition, in 2010. This win has led her to reinvent herself as a soprano with a more mainstream repertoire, making her biggest splash by replacing Dessay as all of the heroines in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann in Paris in late 2012.

Releasing a solo CD seems an inevitable step to opera fame and fortune so Yoncheva’s recent exclusive contract with Sony is bearing fruit at precisely the right moment: “Paris, Mon Amour” was released in the US on Tuesday.

It’s a canny program neatly conceived to show off the soprano’s strengths in a mixture of well-known Italian works and lesser-known French ones. A quick listen revealed several highlights: the opening “Il est doux, il est bon” from Massenet’s Hérodiade is lovely as is Anna’s aria from Puccini’s Le Villi.

“O ma lyre immortelle” from Gounod’s Sapho is usually claimed by mezzos (although Régine Crespin also recorded a ravishing version) but Yoncheva does it well if occasionally lacking the expected rich lower register.

Mimi’s farewell may lack the heartbreak heard in her recent Met appearances,but high-note aficionados will find Violetta’s high E-flat here. The recording sometimes emphasizes a thinness or edginess to her high notes that was less apparent at the Met and her charming version of a ditty from Lecocq’s Les Cent Vierges reveals a less-than-satisfactory trill, but all in all this CD is a happy sampler of Yoncheva’s art.

Peter Gelb has clearly decided that Yoncheva merits a prominent place at the Met. Due to the craziness of artistic planning done years in advance, her Met debut was actually supposed to have been tonight (January 15th) as Musetta opposite tenor Jean-François Borras who was her very first Alfredo just over two years ago.

But cancelations by other prima donnas have prompted the MET to step up its game and schedule instead three prominent engagements. She’s also now scheduled to open the MET’s 2014-15 season with her first-ever Desdemona in a new production of Verdi’s Otello.

But before the fall, three more Traviatas (with Aleksei Markov as Germont) at the Met remain and they immediately become “must-attend” events, as do her upcoming Violettas at Covent Garden this spring. However, for those who may not be able to experience this memorable portrayal in the flesh, next Wednesday’s performance of La Traviata will be streamed live on the MET’s website.

Photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

  • operaassport

    Most of the time rising stars never become stars. The reality is that there are very few true stars in the opera world. You can probably count them on 2 hands. Yoncheva may become one but she’s not close to being there yet.

    • Lohengrin

      What are the “ingredients” to be/become a real star in Your opinion, operaassport?

      • operaassport

        I think stardom doesn’t have “ingredients.” Stardom is ineffable and almost undefinable. Like obscenity, you know it when you see it.

        • RobNYNY

          That makes it easy to be right all the time.

          • luvtennis

            Or never as is the case with this one.

  • Lohengrin

    If it is possible in her schedule and that of JK she could be his first Desdemona. Their voices and stage presence fitted very good 2012 in Mörbisch/Austria.
    The new generation of Sopranos is on stage: Opolais, Yoncheva, Hartig (and some more).
    Who are the other voices of that generation in the early thirties?
    Discovered a promising Bariton who at the moment is Orest/Monteverdi in London: Gyula Orent. A very good singer and a real stage animal, as to see on different small clips.

    • Krunoslav

      Opolais was not sounding much like a Wetlstar at the Met’s BOHEME tonight. Very occluded in I and II, somewhat better afterwards, but the bottom is empty and the middle can be metallic. Good actress, but…

      • DellaCasaFan

        Re: Opolais
        Well, she seems to be much revered so I’m glad someone else said it: “the bottom is empty and the middle can be metallic.” … and the top can be shrill.

        A good actress indeed, but the attractions to her vocal qualities escape me.

        • I was there too and didn’t think this was a Mimì voice either. It can sound very curdled in the middle and that doesn’t work for Mimì. She’s a gorgeous woman and a great actress but definitely miscast.

      • alejandro

        I saw her and I thought both she and Borras were really off in Act One. He cracked and sounded like he was marking and she was okay but I wanted more bloom in her aria. She was much much better in the last two acts as was he. It was a little disappointing because Act I is where the candy is! I wanted that 1,2,3 punch of their arias and the duet.

        But she really creates a strong character arc and I was in tears when she died, so not a total loss.

  • alejandro

    I cannot wait for this. I think she has a lot of potential.

    I got her Paris Mon Amour CD and I found the voice really plush and elegant, but there was a lot of drama missing for me (which I see in live performances of hers I’ve caught on YouTube). The Thais scene was probably the most balls to the wall on the disc. I wonder how much of it was the maestro she was working with?

    I do think she will be exciting in the Decker Traviata. I am so psyched!

  • armerjacquino

    Aha. Yoncheva’s London Violettas appear to be around the time of my birthday. I sense some hint-dropping ahead…

  • Salome Where She Danced

    Saw her Violetta in Munich (April 2013) with Villazon. She’s the real deal.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Yes I was there too and said that I was very impressed and look very much forward to seeing her in the future the next role here being Fiordiligi then Rachel next season.

  • Vecchio Neofito

    I was in the house last night too, and while I thought one side of the Violetta-Alfredo-Giorgio triangle was a bit weaker than the others, it was a fabulous night for Yoncheva. She sang with such beauty, subtlety, and emotion. Wonderful.

  • antikitschychick

    Wonderful piece; my thanks to Mr. Corwin. Am super excited for Saturday’s performance (though I’m disappointed that I won’t get to hear Quinn Kelsey’s Germont). Sonya is arguably still in the nascent stages of her international career but she is certainly poised for stardom at this point. I think she has a great voice and lots of dramatic potential; I look forward to hearing her live, particularly in such an iconic role.

    Also, the nominees for this year’s Opera Awards have been announced and here is the full list of nominees for best female singers:
    Joyce DiDonato
    Anja Harteros
    Liudmyla Monastyrska (YAY!!!!!)
    Anna Netrebko
    Anita Rachvelishvili
    Sonya Yoncheva

    They will probably give it to Sonya Yoncheva, JDD or Anja Harteros (doubt they’d give it to AN since she dropped out of Faust lol). I am a fan of all these great ladies and I think they are all deserving and equally talented in different ways, so personally, I think they should give it to either Yoncheva (I know she’s not French but she has close ties to France obvs) or LM as a token of solidarity and support to France and Ukraine for recent world events and because they are the two ‘rising stars’ or what have you for whom this would serve as a nice validation. With the exception of Anita R (who is also fantastic!), the rest of these ladies have been having very successful careers for quite some time. As a side note, I’ve noticed that they usually give the award to those who are able to attend the award ceremony and JDD has gigs in London around that time so she’s a likely candidate, even though I think she’s been nominated and won in the past no?

    Here’s a link to the opera awards website showing the complete list of finalists:

    • armerjacquino

      I posted the nominations in the general discussion thread; no interest so far, sadly.

      • armerjacquino

        Although on the subject of Opera Magazine, I found an old 1989 edition recently which was a reminder of how careers from different eras can overlap; my mind was ever so slightly blown to see reviews of Rolando Panerai and Sandrine Piau in the same edition.

      • antikitschychick

        sorry, hadn’t seen that.

        • armerjacquino

          Wasn’t complaining! Commiserating that the cp doesn’t seem that interested.

          • antikitschychick

            oh I know I was just apologizing for being redundant.

          • MontyNostry

            Incidentally, armer, I just saw today that there’s an all-star Follies coming up at the Royal Albert Hall on April 28. Includes Russell Watson, wouldja believe -- presumably for Beautiful Girls -- Anita Harris, Roy Hudd … and Christine Baranski.


            • MontyNostry

              Bloody hell, top price seats are over £100.

            • lorenzo.venezia

              Back in the “Cybill” era, I was poolside at the Bel Air Hotel. Baranski was also by the pool. About an hour later, two cowboy-booted bodyguards scoped out the pool, one at each end, talking on cellphones. A few minutes later David Geffin (who has a house or two with their own pools nearby) took a chaise near the pool under their watchful eye. Baranski saw Geffin and gave him a little wiggle-finger wave he completely ignored. Successively, she did everything humanly possible that didn’t involve touching him to get him to acknowledge her existence. His attention would not be caught. Once she retreated, he went into the pool, swam his laps, and left. He never acknowledged her existence and she never stopped trying. Tough business, showbiz ;-)

            • PushedUpMezzo

              The other seats aren’t that much cheaper. Let’s be charitable and hope that this Follies is a benefit concert. Very few people will be willing to pay that sort of price -especially for the matinee. Russell Watson will probably give a great account of Beautiful Girls (though he is about thirty years too young for that role).

            • armerjacquino

              Ruthie Henshall, too. It’s quite the cast.

              I’ll wait for the DVD (or badger Anne Vosser for a place in the chorus…)

            • MontyNostry

              Maybe she should just have pushed Mr Geffen in the pool as she left. She was the best thing in Cybill (which was an enjoyable show).

      • antikitschychick

        hadn’t seen that you had also posted about the Opera Awards I meant. Ugh, your mention of that Opera Magazine reminded me that I left the latest edition of Opera News at the airport in Miami by mistake :-(. Hopefully the lady who checked my bag is an opera fan lol.

  • It took FOUR tenors to replace Vargas: Bryan Hymel, Charles Castronovo, Francesco Demuro, and Michael Fabiano. Detail here.

    That said, San Francisco is dying of jealousy. Yoncheva canceled her June and December, 2014, appearances as Violetta and Mimi on account of her pregnancy, only to sing both roles at the Met with the Mimis only weeks after her child was born.

    • Hippolyte

      “…he was called on earlier to be one of the three (!) tenors to replace Ramon Vargas opposite Yoncheva during her Bohème run.”

      This sentence in the review refers specifically to those who sang with Yoncheva; Fabiano sang opposite Gheorghiu.

  • Camille

    This very much confirms all that Monsieur œdipe has been telling us now for some time. Very happy indeed to hear what he has had to say about Mlle Yoncheva confirmed by Mr Corwin and greatly look forward to hearing antikitschychica’s accounting of her experience in the next performance

    Although I do regret Anna Netrebko’s decision not to perform this part here at the MET, I do understand her reservation and I have felt unhappy or unsatisfied by all the ladies thus far, except maybe Marina Rebeka, and only to a point. So, it makes me happy that a real Violetta that can take this production and make it work for her has finally arrived.

    Don’t forget, kitschychica, there are still more student tickets available, or there were. Better scoop up another one soon, if you want it!

    • antikitschychick

      hey Camille :-) Thanks for your enthusiasm about my upcoming outing for Traviata. I shall try not to disappoint with my account of the performance! lol. I so wish I could go to the Met more often but alas, I’m so busy with school that it just isn’t feasible for me to attend more performances during the fall and spring semesters. It’s a bummer because I really wanted to see/hear AN in Iolanta but I will have to make due with the HD. Plus, being that she will finally be taking on Norma, Aida and Tosca, the best is yet to come from her me thinks and by that time I’ll have graduated :-D.
      Btw did you see that oedipe re-appeared on another thread?

  • I was at the Yoncheva Traviata — wonderful performance, agree totally with Christopher. I was also at the Bohème tonight which due to some scenery malfunctions lasted almost four hours!!! Thankfully I got to hear Jean-François Borras who I think has one of the most beautiful lyric tenor voices in the business (and is a very nice guy).

    Some further thoughts here:

    • Milady DeWinter

      I loved Borras when he had the unhappy task of subbing for an ailing Kauffmann during the last run of Werther at the Met. A real live French lyric tenor with silvery glints in the voice -- what’s not to like?

  • I saw her as (Monteverdi’s) Poppea in Lille and noted she had a very beautiful voice, but in that cast everyone was outshone by Ann Hallenberg.

    • laddie


      • Thank you for posting that. Of course I thought of it, but didn’t dare. I thought I’d get told off for posting it on a thread about Yoncheva, not Hallenberg. It’s a shame you can no longer also find “Disprezzata regina” on YouTube. Both, to me, represent what we go to the opera hoping for but so rarely get.