Cher Public

Iris, hence away

Endlessly extricating her from existing contracts then negotiating new ones must make being Sonya Yoncheva’s manager the hardest job in the music business. The biggest recent switcheroo (but not the latest) means she will perform her first-ever Tosca at the opening of the Met’s new production New Year’s Eve. For those curious how she might fare in that iconic role “Trove Thursday” presents the Bulgarian soprano in an opera that premiered just a year before Puccini’s “shabby little shocker”: Mascagni’s Iris. 

I first heard Yoncheva a decade ago when she was performing at Alice Tully Hall as part of the third edition of “Le Jardin des Voix,” a biennial program for young singers created by William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants. I don’t recall her standing out among the ten singers that evening but by the next year she was debuting at the Glyndebourne Festival in the propitious role of Fortuna in L’Incoronazione di Poppea.

For the next few years her repertoire included a lot of 17th and 18th century opera—Vénus is Rameau’s Dardanus and Serpina and Agata in Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona and Il Flaminio, and eventually Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. Winning the 2010 edition of Placido Domingo’s “Operalia” meant that she would soon have the good fortune to sing the title role in Monteverdi’s final opera.

I heard her again the year of the “Operalia” win as Dido in a LAF@BAM staging of Purcell’s opera in which her decidedly un-HIP portrayal—richly sung and throbbing with emotion—contrasted strikingly with her more restrained colleagues. Yet she could be effective in those early operas as a chunk from Sacchini’s best-known work Œdipe à Colone illustrates.

Her “destiny” to replace other singers began auspiciously in 2012 when she seized all four roles in Les Contes d’Hoffmann from Natalie Dessay at a gala Paris concert conducted by Marc Minkowski. Next Aleksandra Kurzak’s pregnancy occasioned her Met debut as Gilda in 2013 ahead of a previously scheduled first appearance as Musetta. Also at the Met she sang her first staged Mimi and an acclaimed Violetta, both times substituting for a soprano who had withdrawn or—in Marina Poplavskaya’s case—crashed and burned.

For those heroic rescues Yoncheva was awarded opening night of the 2015-16 season and her first Desdemona in the new Otello proved a grand success.

Inevitably the Met soon found itself on the bad end of all this soprano juggling when it last fall released its Mimi to accommodate her most high-profile substitution yet: stepping in at Covent Garden for Anna Netrebko who had decided she really didn’t like Norma after all. Despite the scoffing of pre-premiere skeptics Yoncheva (who had earlier subbed there for Netrebko as Marguerite in Faust) received mostly laudatory reviews.

Now however the shoe seems to have migrated to the other foot: last year she avoided a prestigious series of Alcinas with Philippe Jarrousky, and 2017 has brought even more cancelations. She dropped out of Eugene Onegin in Paris declaring the role no longer suited her and just this month she withdrew from Traviata during Munich’s summer festival. As Baden-Baden saw her save its Nozze di Figaro (and the subsequent DG recording) several years ago when Diana Damrau fell out as the Countess, it must now soldier on without her Vitellia in Clemenza di Tito which premieres tonight surprisingly starring Rolando Villazon in the title role. Marina Rebeka replaces her for the two concerts and presumably the CD.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the conductor of both Nozze and Clemenza, was to have conducted Yoncheva’s first Tosca with his Philadelphia Orchestra next May (the orchestra’s website still claims it will be her role debut) but Andris Nelsons (the previously scheduled Tosca’s husband) has that honor… at least for now.

But before that New Year’s Eve premiere she sings her first Elisabeth in Don Carlos in a starry Krzysztof Warlikowski production in Paris conducted by Philippe Jordan alongside Elina Garanca, Jonas Kaufmann, Ludovic Tézier and Ildar Abdrazakov. And after Tosca come two other new operas—Luisa Miller at the Met and La Scala’s first Il Pirata since Maria Callas performed it there 60 years ago. Whew—I’m already exhausted!

A very odd opera with some glorious moments, Iris has only occasionally been mounted–for passionate Italian divas like Clara Petrella, Magda Olivero, and Daniela Dessì. But it did have a rare, memorable revival just last summer at Bard Summerscape.

After the Norma was announced, I frankly expected Yoncheva to withdraw from this Iris concert in Montpellier to give her time to absorb that difficult Bellini role, but she did indeed appear…conducted by her husband Domingo Hindoyan who makes his Met debut next season leading L’Elisir d’Amore. If all goes according to the schedule of the moment, the Met’s 2017-2018 season will see Yoncheva starring in an unprecedented three out of ten HD transmissions: Tosca, La Bohème and Luisa Miller.

Mascagni: Iris
Le Corum Opera, Montpellier
26 July 2016

Sonya Yoncheva — Iris
Andrea Carè — Osaka
Gabriele Viviani — Kyoto
Nikolay Didenko — Il Cieco

Chœur Opéra national Montpellie
Chœur de la Radio Lettone
Orchestre national Montpellier

Domingo Hindoyan — conductor

Iris can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

In addition, more than 80 “Trove Thursday” podcasts are available from iTunes—for free, or via any RSS reader.

  • CCorwinNYC

    That Hariclea Darclée created both Iris and Tosca (and Wally) somehow got dropped in the final draft of this posting. Sorry.

  • CKurwenal

    Very interesting summary of Yoncheva’s career to date. Always fascinating to discover you’ve actually seen somebody who has turned out to be famous and completely failed to notice them at the time -- I struggled through that Glyndebourne Poppea with gritted teeth but the only singing that struck me as special was from the Ottavia (no idea who that was).

    I must say I’m surprised at the Pirata. I mostly enjoyed her Norma but it didn’t feel like the right direction for her, to me. I have reservations about her taking on the likes of the Don Carlos Elisabetta but I do think that kind of lyrical Verdi role will play to her strengths and not require the kind of careful management/coasting on facility that she had to do for sections of Norma, where I found she wasn’t able to give the high notes or the coloratura any real bite or drama.

    • Porgy Amor

      I struggled through that Glyndebourne Poppea with gritted teeth but the only singing that struck me as special was from the Ottavia (no idea who that was).

      Tamara Mumford, I believe. I did not see the Poppea, but that would make sense, if so. She has brought distinction to a few Met productions that needed it.

      • PCally

        Yoncheva herself is a pretty smashing popped, if a bit “obvious” in terms of interpretation, nothing at all ambiguous about her motives.

    • PCally

      Curious CK as to what you feel about her singing baroque repertoire. I think there’s something unvaried about her most recent Handel collection but, more so than in the excerpts of bel canto I’ve hear from her (though I’m not really sure tbh who I’d rather hear as Norma these days) the richness and flickering vibrato really do wonders as poppea and in Rameau. I’m really hoping she has another go as Alcina, the sound just seems like such a perfect fit for the role. The lack of a vitellia is also pretty disappointing, I really think she’s pretty quick to pull out of roles that seems so perfect for her (I’d rather here her in either of those roles than Tosca, though that may in part be because I don’t like the opera that much).

      • CKurwenal

        I haven’t heard the Handel album, and you’re not the only person I’ve read say they aren’t terribly interesting performances, but from the purely vocal point of view I think she’s made for his music. Completely agree that Alcina in particular could have been a great role for her. I don’t personally see her necessarily as Vitellia -- I think her voice is a fairly straight forward lyric (albeit with some unusual attributes that make some other roles possible) and its soft-grained nature and absence of an exciting chest register aren’t really what I associate with that role. Vaness for example I think had a spinto thrust and sheen as Vitellia, while Baker and (Della) Jones had character and a certain coarseness that worked for the character. Next to those 3 (and others) I would imagine a Yoncheva Vitellia as rather bland.

        • Daniel Swick

          Vanness in the Salzburg recording with Muti is on fire…it’s live and she sings the role impossibly well.

          • steveac10

            I think Vaness very well might be the undisputed queen of tricky Mozart roles. Somehow she was able to encompass the astonishing extremes Mozart demanded in those roles without disrupting the overall line. Plus the woman could ACT!



            • CKurwenal

              I think Vaness had flawless vocal production, which just meant no real difficulties arose for her in Mozart. Stunning singing.

            • PCally

              I love Vaness in the crazy lady parts (Elettra, Vitellia) and she definitely had the basic demands of Fiordiligi down pat for a while. But I have to admit I don’t really understand the idea that Mozart posed no difficulties for her or that her production was flawless. She can’t sing softly, like at all, and IMO past the late 1980’s, that pretty much made roles like the Countess and Donna Anna (other than the first aria) un-listenable for me. And I don’t hear much in the way of legato or seamless singing (her register breaks are pretty big). Those roles require an elegance and repose which was never Vaness’s strong suit and which to my ears became virtually impossible for her later on. When I finally saw the Fiordigli live (with Bartoli) she basically belted the entire thing and the tone was totally dried out.

              As far as Elettra’s are concerned, I know what often happens when bringing up the dreaded name, but as wonderful as Vaness is, THIS performance I find to be absolutely staggering.


            • Daniel Swick

              Yes, you’re absolutely right. The voice had no float. She could be very good and the big dramatic sings but was lost where delicacy was needed. Her Desdemona was a massive miss, for example.

            • Peter

              She has plenty of float here (1985), especially in the final phrases:

            • JR

              I can’t help but feel that people are extrapolating from late Vaness and that this is coloring their views on her in her prime.

            • JR

              Vaness was amazing in Merry Wives of Windsor at City Opera…the top was sooo beautiful.

            • CCorwinNYC

              Speaking of Vaness in Merry Wives…


            • Agreed Steveac10 — I was fortunate enough to see two performances of Idomeneo with Vaness and she was supreme in the music both times. And the MET production gives her a great exit as men carry her off stage kicking and writhing in fury.

        • PCally

          Her Countess was astonishingly disappointing, probably the most boring I’ve ever heard, and not all that well sung either.

    • I noted briefly, when I saw her as Poppea in 2012, that her voice was “very beautiful indeed”. But I was more interested in Ann Hallenberg’s Ottavia.

      • Ivy Lin

        God this duet is so beautiful.

        • CCorwinNYC

          Too bad it’s not by Monteverdi.

        • Heheh I know people love it but I personally find it a relative let-down and a bore.

          • PCally

            I love it but in no way is it my favorite moment of the opera. I actually think as beautiful as her music is, Poppea has least interesting music. Nerone, Poppea, and even Druisilla’s conversational music is more intriguing to me. And Ottavia is one of my all time favorite operatic characters, I think all three of her scenes are absolutely extraordinary.

            • Daniel Swick

              I agree. I also think Seneca’s death scene is one of the greatest scenas in baroque opera…with that wonderful trio ala “L’amento d’Arianna”.

            • PCally -- in the same 2012 report, I wrote: “Funny though it may sound to some, I don’t find Poppea’s part especially memorable…”

              Perhaps one of the committee-members looked after it.

            • PCally

              I think I might like the opera a bit better than you do, because I do think that her music is overall pretty special. There’s an earlier review of yours I came across on your blog (from 2007? It’s a revival of the McVicar production, one which I was fortunate enough to see when it premiered) where you write “…sense of rambling inconsistency that to me is always a risk with Poppea, rather than tying it together into something more coherent. Though we’re all supposed to acclaim it as Monteverdi’s masterpiece, Jacobs seems to me more reasonable in stating clearly he sees it as an uneven, workshop piece by a team of composers, though still “one of the greatest operas of the 17th century”.

              I do think it’s one of the greats but I do agree with the gist of your point, it’s very episodic and when compared to other moments in the opera, it can be a bit easy to forget about Poppea unless there’s something special coming from either the soprano or the director (the Alden production is a good example of this).

              Even if it’s even less cohesive of a piece, Il Ritorno is probably my desert Island Monteverdi. The final ten minutes are so cause me to tear up every time I listen to it.

            • OK I’ll own up: I still prefer Orfeo.

    • Daniel Swick

      Her Fiordiligi is clean as a whistle and very well sung but it’s reckless too and probably contributed to her losing the high notes.

  • Daniel Swick

    Vitellia doesn’t seem like an ideal role for her…in fact, how many sopranos really nail the part?

    • Cameron Kelsall

      Vaness pretty much owned the role in the 80s and early 90s. More recently, I thought Roschmann did an incredible job in the Salzburg DVD from the early 2000s.

      • PCally

        I would say Vaness and Varady owned the role. I prefer Vaness but Varady recorded it twice and many swear by her in the role.

        My favorite Vitellia is Roschmann. The role’s a bit big for her but I think few sings sing Mozart with as much soul and drama as she does.

    • PCally

      Virtually every famous interpreter or Vitellia has been a soprano and in fact one of the least successful versions of the role is Bakers IMO, who basically sounds over parted the entire time.

      • Daniel Swick

        I should say that I just assumed the best singers of the part WERE sopranos. I agree that most mezzos sound off in the music and don’t handle the lower stuff nearly as well as one would think they should.

        • CCorwinNYC

          Mezzo Alice Coote sings her first Vitellia at Glyndebourne later this month. Based on her recent track record I can’t imagine it’s a good idea. That said, Coote sang one of the best performances of Sesto (in Clemenza) I’ve ever heard at the 2008 Mostly Mozart Festival.

          I quite like Maria Casula’s Vitellia on the old Kertesz recording.

      • rhinestonecowgirl

        I love Janet Baker to distraction, but I do think that Vitellia and Alceste were bad choices. She sounded strained in both roles and the tessitura hampered her ability to characterise in detail. Sesto would have been so much more sensible a role.

  • guy pacifica

    Thanks, CC, for the upload of Iris. It was my first experience with this opera. There is some really lovely music here and Yoncheva was frequently really thrilling. Thanks for sharing!

  • Apulia

    My previous acquaintance with Iris was almost entirely due to Magda Olivero, and I’m afraid this is one of those occasions (not really common with me) when the recorded voice of someone now gone makes it hard for me to listen to someone with less….intensity, despite some fine work. I’ve never liked the opera itself, nor do I here--and I would fasten my fenestra tightly shut if I heard the serenade sung as it is here.