August 9, 2013

Kurzak Rolls On With Rossini

Aleksandra Kurzak: Bel Raggio
By Jason Victor Serinus

Aleksandra Kurzak: <em>Bel Raggio</em>Twelve years after she first sang one of the high-flying Rossini roles that have brought her fame, Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak is ready to move on. While she isn’t about to abandon the coloratura repertoire, she does want to focus on other composers’ more tragic and lyric roles. Hence, we in the Bay Area have heard her, not in Rossini, but rather as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto.

As a way of bidding Rossini adieu, or so she intimates, Kurzak has at last produced an entire disc of the composer’s scenes and arias, many of which are rarely performed. “…I’m happy to have had this opportunity to record Rossini,” she states in the liner notes to Bel Raggio: Rossini Arias, “because I know that in a few years’ time I will be far away from the repertoire. I want to develop as a singer.”

Listen To The Music

Bel raggio lusinghier from Semiramide
"L'ora fatal s'apresso… Giusto ciel! in tal periglio" from L'assedio di Corinto
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An admirable intention, to be sure. But does more substantial lyric/tragic music best exploit her gifts? After all, the history of operatic singing abounds with artists who insisted on expanding beyond roles to which their voices and temperament were naturally suited. Take, among tenors of recent memory, José Carreras. Gifted with a beautiful lyrical instrument of medium weight, he insisted on pushing his voice into heavier roles until, far too early, the lyrical beauty began to erode. In the soprano department, Elena Soullotis burned out rather fast by trying to sing heavy roles, including Abigaile in Verdi’s Nabucco, that even Callas only attempted a limited number of times, early on.

Judging from her renditions of the nine selections on the CD, Kurzak is not about to burn out. She does, however, have some work ahead of her. Even in more dramatic Rossini roles, including Elisabetta in Guglielmo Tell (William Tell), her efforts to add weight to the voice go only so far. It still naturally lightens and sweetens as she ascends above the stave, which limits her dramatic impact.

Nor do her renditions abound with fresh insight. Thus, when she sings “L’ora fatal s’appressa… Giusto ciel! In tal periglio” (The fateful hour is drawing near … Merciful God! In such danger) from L’assedio di Corinto (The Siege of Corinth), her generalized sense of suffering and anguish does not even begin to approach the heartbreaking intensity that Beverly Sills brought to the role. Perhaps Pier Giorgio Morandi, who conducts the Sinfonia Varsovia beneath her, was either content to let her be or ill-equipped to coax her to the next level.

Kurzak consciously pays tribute to another late and great coloratura soprano, Joan Sutherland, by adopting “her very beautiful ornamentation” for the title track, “Bel raggio lusinghier” (A beautiful, enchanting gleam) from Semiramide. Kurzak’s sound is everywhere lovely, with an appealing depth that she attempts to carry up the scale. Her coloratura is also as immaculate as it is enchanting. But where Australia’s La Stupenda justifies her reputation by soaring with incomparably brilliant incandescence, the far lighter-voiced Kurzak emits lovely, pretty sounds that glow like little diamonds rather than blaze like bright nebulae.

Perhaps another coloratura of recent memory, Maria Callas, would have benefited from Kurzak’s prettiness. She also might have lasted longer if she had adhered to the Polish artist’s rule of not forcing her voice. Nonetheless, the gifts of stunning power and dramatic revelation that Callas brought to “Bel raggio” are the rest of her coloratura repertoire are not Kurzak’s to share.

And so it goes throughout the disc. At her best in lighter, technically demanding passages that would send many a coloratura running after the Barber’s Rosina (who makes a single appearance on the disc), Kurzak brings a welcome smile to “Ami alfine? E chi non ama? … Tace la tromba altera” (Do you love at last? And who does not love? … The proud trumpet is silent) from Matilde di Shabran. It’s clear that she really enjoys this music, even though she writes that her astounding coloratura is “a little slower” than when she sang the role at Covent Garden in 2008.

“Coloratura is not about circus-like showing off,” she insists. “It’s important to use coloratura expressively, to make music with it and project feelings.”

Yes it is. And many a soprano and mezzo coloratura has succeeded in that regard. Kurzak, on the other hand, is still learning how. Regardless, when the disc ends triumphantly on Fiorilla’s long-held high D at the conclusion of an extended scene from Il turco in Italia, we can only hope that, if Kurzak’s good sense prevails, she and Rossini are far from parting.

Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings. He is editor of Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS, and he has written about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, AudioStream, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, and other publications.