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This past January, noted Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova died in Leipzig at the age of 75.
Obraztsova made her debut as Marina in Boris Godunov at Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera in 1963. Her international career took flight with the Bolshoi’s tours to Milan and Montreal, and then to New York and Washington in the triumphant summer of 1975. It was then that American audiences experienced the revelation of Soviet artists native to the culture singing Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev in the original language. Among those who made the strongest effect were bass Evgeny Nesterenko, tenor Vladimir Atlantov, baritone Yuri Mazurok, soprano Makvala Kasrashvili, and Elena Obraztsova. It would be Obraztsova who would rack up the greatest number of Met performances, thirty from October 1976 to April 1979, a brief period of détente that allowed artists from the U.S.S.R. to appear with American companies. This hiatus in the Cold War came to an end in 1980 when Washington suspended talks with Moscow on cultural exchanges as one response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Obraztsova continued her international career on the opera stages of Europe and South America. She was one of very few Soviet singers who were granted permission to return to the Met in the 1980s until perestroika opened the doors to so many wonderful artists from Eastern Europe. The privilege of travel she enjoyed has been ascribed to her willingness to cooperate with the then Communist regime.
During her early seasons at the Met, Obraztsova sang the principal dramatic mezzo roles of the Italian and French repertoire—Amneris, Eboli, Azucena, Carmen, Dalila. Only in her last performances with the company, in 2001 and 2002, when she took on character parts in Prokofiev’s The Gambler and War and Peace, did she sing in Russian. Met audiences were therefore deprived of the great Russian roles in which she excelled, Marina and Marfa, though the company staged both Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina in the 1970s and 1980s.
We interviewed the diva in June 2001 at the Barcelona home of Gloria Vilardell, her agent for Spain. We asked her why she had not sung Marina and Marfa with the Met. “I don’t know. I sing Boris in the Rimsky-Korsakov version. Now, everyone does the Shostakovich version, which I don’t like. Do you know why I am angry about this new fashion? . . . When Rimsky orchestrated Mussorgsky’s music, he knew what he was doing. The two of them shared a room. Who knew better—Rimsky or Shostakovich?”
As the clip that follows makes palpable, Russian music and text shows off Obraztsova’s rock-solid, fully resonant, opulent lower register. Here she is as Marina, a Polish noblewoman, blandishing her most voluptuous tones as she declares her love to the false Dimitri, the pretender who has pledged to usurp the throne of Russia’s Czar, Boris. The tenor is A. Tolstoukhov.
In Khovanshchina, the incantatory Act II aria of the religious fanatic Marfa predicts the fall of the progressive Prince Golitsin. The depth of Obraztsova’s organ-like timbre matches the gravity of the mystic’s divination. This is an excerpt from a 1980 Tokyo concert.
Obraztsova’s Carmen was celebrated everywhere. The Vienna State Opera mounted a prestigious new production for her in 1978, staged by Franco Zeffirelli, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Here we see her in Act I. Carefree, playfully seductive, spins the elegant line of the “Habanera” with its wonted lightness and grace.