This summer, the Salzburg Festival is presenting a series called “Canto Lirico,” which is mainly a tribute to the Italian singing tradition—a tribute and a demonstration. One of the demonstrators was Sonya Yoncheva, the starry Bulgarian soprano. She sang a concert in the House for Mozart on Friday night. Behind her was a little group calling itself the Donizetti Opera Ensemble.
What did she sing? Donizetti? Yes, there were a couple of Donizetti songs on the program. But this was an evening of songs—generally light songs, salon songs—by a slew of composers, several of them operatic masters: Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini, to name three (besides Donizetti). Any songs we knew? Probably not, except for two.
Yoncheva sang “Ideale,” by Paolo Tosti. And you may well know “Stornello,” by Pietro Cimara. Arleen Auger, with the pianist Dalton Baldwin, made a wonderful recording of it. The song includes the killer line “Baciami dunque e fa nove scintilla”—“Kiss me then, and make new sparks.”
The ensemble—the back-up group—consisted of a traditional string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) plus harp. Yoncheva frequently conducted them, or semi-conducted them (making her a semiconductor?). Picture this: Yoncheva would be reading her music, on the stand in front of her, conducting the group behind her, with her right hand. She would occasionally turn around and do more.
I’m not sure this was an optimal situation. I think the group should have had a proper conductor, or, better yet, looked at one another—communicated with one another—and played together.
The evening was not a model of coordination. But Sonya Yoncheva is a very musical person, as well as the owner of a world-class voice.
When she sang her first song—a Donizetti ditty—with that opulent voice, I thought, “Isn’t this a little like taking a Rolls-Royce to the corner grocery store?” I’m sure the line was inspired by one I read long ago—I wish I could credit the critic. Someone, reviewing a Kiri Te Kanawa album of pop standards, said, “Isn’t that like taking a 747 from Milwaukee to Chicago?”
I think it might have been John von Rhein, in the Chicago Tribune. Not sure.
In any event, the Yoncheva voice is a treat to the ear. Her bottom register was “bottled,” to use a word applied to Callas’s. Her middle register was rich and secure. Her top was also rich, of course—and free and glorious. Now and then, there was some fraying, but not enough to cause alarm.
Yoncheva frequently makes a “wet” sound, which goes with that “opulence.”
How about diction? Well, for this soprano, the music means more than the words—a lot more—and if a word tries to get in the way of a sound, well, too bad for the word. At least that is my impression. And if one wants the words, precise and crisp: one can look in one’s program.
How about the Donizetti Opera Ensemble? Their playing was sometimes a little rough, but they were always serviceable, or better. Throughout the evening, they played some interludes—pieces on their own—so that the singing star could rest backstage. One of those interludes was a movement from a Donizetti string quartet. Yes, he wrote almost twenty of those, when he was a young man. Then he went on to become the operatic master we know him as.
After one of the interludes, Yoncheva took a long time returning. When she did, it was in another dress: va-va-voom. I often think she looks like Jessica Rabbit, the cartoon character—poured into those dresses, slinking around. You remember Jessica, don’t you? I will cite Wikipedia:
Jessica Rabbit is a fictional character in Who Censored Roger Rabbit? and its film adaptation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. . . . Jessica is renowned as one of the best-known sex symbols in animation. She is also well known for the line: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”
On the program were four Puccini songs. And before she sang her first encore, Yoncheva said that the songs foreshadowed operas to come. I thought for sure she would sing “Doretta’s Song,” from La rondine. But she picked something else: one of Mimì’s arias from La bohème, “Donde lieta uscì.” She sang it correctly, beautifully, and touchingly.
She sang one more: the “Donizetti ditty” she started the evening with, namely “Me voglio fa’ na casa.” That was a true encore. “Encore” originally meant, “Sing it [or play it] again.” Only later did it come to mean, “Sing [or play] something in addition.” In any case, Yoncheva sang her Donizetti deliciously.
Allow me a footnote: It’s pleasant, in my opinion, to see another performer in the audience. On this night, Cecilia Bartoli, the Italian mezzo-soprano, was in attendance. She was wearing a beautiful dirndl, if I’m not mistaken, and a floral face mask to go with it. She was grooving a bit to these old Italian songs, which was a tribute to her fellow singer onstage, and also to those songs.