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"Can They Hear Me?"

May 22, 2007

Chamber Music San Francisco's director, Daniel Levenstein, seems to favor loud Slavs. Soon after an eardrum-shattering recital by pianist Nikolai Demidenko, in which he pounded out Bach and Schumann with the same force that Samson used to topple the temple, we get powerhouse tenor Vladimir Kuzmenko. The Ukraine-born singer, who joined the Kiev Opera as principal tenor on graduation from the Kiev Conservatory, has since been feted as "Leading Artist of the Ukraine" and principal tenor of the Warsaw National Opera, and has sung in a number of notable houses.
After his strong-voiced San Francisco Opera debut in last year's La forza del destino, Levenstein invited him back on Saturday to shake the dust off the cherubs on Herbst Theatre's ceiling during his U.S. recital debut.

Thank God that Levenstein, knowing the power of the man's voice, shifted from the series' usual venue, the intimate Florence Gould jewel box in the Palace of the Legion of Honor, to Herbst. The Gould's naturally resonant acoustic would have resulted in a deafening performance, while Herbst's polar-opposite dryness only served to blunt the shining edge of Kuzmenko's decibel-defying instrument.

Levenstein also made sure that his audience knew what he wanted them to experience. Not content with prefacing the recital by announcing that we were "in for a treat," he also returned after intermission to tell us that someday, we would "look back and say, 'Wasn't I lucky? I heard him when.' "

It's times such as these when a dissident critic may wonder if he is from another planet. While I already knew that I was, I couldn't help wondering if anyone within earshot might also inhabit a parallel universe. After suffering in silence while an audience thickly populated by elderly Russians seconded Levenstein's sentiments by cheering, whooping, and bravoing time and time again, I found myself celling the spouse during intermission to ask whether Kuzmenko's voice had perchance reached our Oakland garden.
Imposing Voice, Single Performing Style
It would have been one thing if Kuzmenko had sung with a modicum of artistry. Instead, he delivered everything from Manrico's aria "Ah si, ben mio ..." (from Verdi's Il trovatore) and Werther's "Pourquoi me reveiller" (Massenet's Werther) to art songs by Glinka and Tchaikovsky with the same one-size-fits-all, sock-it-to-'em treatment. Granted, his instrument is imposing, its glistening, admirably steady top producing a stunning high B at the conclusion of the second and final encore, Calaf's "Nessun dorma" (Puccini's Turandot). But to what end?

A case in point was Nemorino's aria "Una furtiva lagrima" (Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore), which was misspelled in the program. (Note to Levenstein: The program for the Beaux Arts Trio also contained typos.) Tenors as diverse as Tito Schipa, Beniamino Gigli, Juan Diego Flórez, Cesare Valletti, Luciano Pavarotti, and the young Enrico Caruso have all made memorable recordings of this aria. All of them, by and large, exhibit a honeyed mezza voce, a fine legato, and elegant (or at least elegantlike) phrasing, as well as a poetic use of rubato. Not here, where grab-the-bull-by-the-horns was the order of the day.

Kuzmenko also favors expressing emotion through incessant sobbing, sometimes twice in one word, a case in point being "tris (sob)–tesse (sob)." The aforementioned Gigli was frequently criticized for excessive sobbing. But even in his late recordings of Italian and Neapolitan songs, Gigli maintained the ability to caress phrases with melting warmth, and to vary tempo and dynamics. Perhaps the alarming decrease in the world's honeybee population began in Russia, because Kuzmenko exhibited no honeyed warmth. He could have been hailing a taxi for all the variety he poured into his first encore, "O sole mio!"

The tenor frequently urged his pianist, the dutiful Svetlana Gorzhevskaya, to stand and bow after numbers. Though she was clearly uncomfortable doing so, it allowed her to face Kuzmenko and remind him what came next on the program. (At the start of the second Glinka song in the first half, he actually signaled her to stop, walked over to her bench, glanced at her music, realized she was correct, turned to the audience to charmingly say, "I'm sorry," and then began from the top.) Gorzhevskaya, a student of Emil Gilels and a longtime member of the music staff of San Francisco Opera, wisely abandoned any attempts at poetic license, and instead went along for the ride.

The absence of printed translations — talk about reaching out to new audiences — and a lack of rudimentary familiarity with Russian art song spared me from knowing whether Kuzmenko's all-purpose suffering was appropriate for the nine Russian selections. Certainly most in the audience thought so. Maybe it's time to hail that spaceship.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.