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 [email protected] 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Also at the Met she sang her first staged Mimi and an acclaimed Violetta, both times substituting for a soprano who had withdrawn or—in Marina Poplavskaya’s case—crashed and burned.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.

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