That particular shade of blue is cerulean—which means “heavenly.” Besides the heavens and a sweater in The Devil Wears Prada, it is the hue of Hibla Gerzmava’s soprano, in contrast to the red or rose or red-orange voices of most sopranos. It is an easeful, lovely sound. The audience at a packed Carnegie Hall on Thursday night for “An Evening with Hibla Gerzmava” found it simply beautiful, and commented endlessly on that single factor. They were not wrong.
Gerzmava, who hails (and what hails they are!) from Abkhazia, which is or is not (depending on your politics) a seaside portion of Georgia, formerly of the U.S.S.R., is getting herself much talked about on the international circuit. She is Moscow-trained and sings Cherubini’s Medée, Lucia, Tatyana, Ludmila, and Mozart’s Donna Anna and Vitellia. She made her Met debut as Antonia in Hoffman; I first heard her there two weeks ago as Liù in Turandot. She will sing Desdemona later this season.
The voice is not only beautiful but large, easily filling large rooms. The range is exceptional without loss of quality, with depths that can be used to suggest the tomb (useful in so much of the song repertory) and an easy top that only became shrill at the end of a long evening (twelve songs, four big arias, three with cabalettas). Her presence is majestic, her stage sense less so—she seemed to have no clue, in Turandot, what the character of Liù was about, and seemed to expect mere voice to ensure success.
Liù is a self-effacing girl and much of her music should be spun out softly, self-effacingly, but Gerzmava was all diva all the time. A similar inability to rein herself back from an aggressive forte was notable at Carnegie, in Desdemona’s Ave Maria and in the “Casta Diva.” The cabaletta to the latter, again, is an internal thing, Norma talking to herself, pleading with her absent lover, but Gerzmava sang it—it was the last number on the program, true—as a rollicking, “I’m number one!” crow of triumph.
Aside from the voice’s size and distinctive luster, which give genuine pleasure, Gerzmava’s technique seemed wanting in one particular: breath control. She ran out quite often, and audibly took another breath to complete this phrase or that. This was true even in the Russian songs in the first half of the program; in the arias, sung in clear but idiosyncratic Italian (no doubled consonants), this limitation and her weird choice of phrases to break up were disturbing.
This is a flaw of many Russian-trained singers—Dmitri Hvorostovsky is the worst offender, with his grinding of gears between gorgeous lines of any Verdi aria. Gerzmava is far subtler, but it is a flaw. Many Russian singers breathe naturally (Netrebko, Borodina), it is not too late for Gerzmava to fix it, but she is 45; she will have to address the problem or her mastery of western repertory will remain imperfect.
In the first half of her Carnegie Hall program, Gerzmava sang half a dozen Tchaikovsky songs and half a dozen by Rachmaninoff. I don’t know whose idea it was to give such a program without printing translations of the texts—Russian filled the audience, true, but many of us could only react to the sound, not the meaning, of the songs. I’ve been told Carnegie has stopped printing texts for lieder recitals; I suggest this is a mistake. My Russian friends assured me her singing of the language was flawless, as is typical of any Abkhaz with cultural aspirations. (The local joke there is, If you want to speak Abkhaz, put a hot potato in your mouth.)
The songs varied in dramatic style and approach and called for different attitudes of the singer and different regions of the voice. Gerzmava was thus able to show off her sunny upper register and the cool, shadowy depths. There were songs of hopeful love and hopeless love, a fable about Jesus and the crown of thorns and a comic tale about a cuckoo, resenting the other birds, braying “Cuckoo!” about the town in revenge. Gerzmava has a charming comic sense, and delighted in putting this one over, a skill she otherwise brought only to her last encore, “My Wide Street.” One gets the sense of an emotionally generous artist who delights in sharing her art.
The Rachmaninoff songs, with a French orientation and a more detailed piano accompaniment (provided by Ekaterina Ganelina, who has a delicate touch and a dramatic flair), dwelt on romantic daydreams that allowed composer and singer rhapsodize. “Lilacs” was especially dreamy, “The Migrant Wind” a vivid tone-picture of a night at sea. The concluding number, “They Answered,” closed with a fragrant descending portamento that reminded me of Mary Martin. You think I’m joking or criticizing; I’m not.
After the break (allowing the diva, a buxom, dark-haired, lively lady, to change from basic black to off-white closed with a jeweled belt), came a program of showpiece arias, all of them sung with rather more body to the voice than they usually get in a theater. “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo, a pensive text, was sung with proper reserve and much ornamentation of line, the ornaments implying tears running down an immobile face. The Willow Song aimed for a similar stillness but I did not hear the self-abandonment, the desperate appeal for divine aid, that should haunt the Ave Maria.
Jenny Lind’s madcap coloratura showpiece from Verdi’s I Masnadieri—just about all one ever hears from that awkward opera—seemed to be placed on the program to stake a claim to the throne of a dramatic coloratura, but though the energy was impressive, the instrument superb and many triplet figures elegant, she lacks a trill and is not truly comfortable at the top of her range for long. Those are skills she would need for Lucia or Violetta (or any Handel), but are quite unnecessary to sing Tatyana or Lisa, parts in which I think she would be lovely.
The Verdi was followed by “Casta Diva.” It was a pleasure to hear Bellini sung by so rich an instrument, but she was clearly tiring by this point in the long night. Her descending portamenti reminded me of Montserrat Caballé’s, but Caballé had (at least early in her career) more precision in defining each note.
This, for the unanalytical attendee, was a wonderful night, exposure to a wonderful voice. But Gerzmava’s imperfections, her unvarying dynamic, undercut her ability to portray a role with voice. Those are skills that can be developed and I hope she is not too fixed in her ways to address them. Her voice is exceptional, but one may question whether the artist has reached the same peak.