Gerzmava at her best with songs from homeland in U.S. recital debut

Fri Oct 09, 2015 at 1:41 pm
Hibla Gerzmava made her U.S. recital debut Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: P Vaan

Hibla Gerzmava made her U.S. recital debut Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: P Vaan

There’s nothing quite like playing in front of a home crowd. The Abkhazian–Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava, currently taking a break from her run as Liù in the Met’s Turandot, made her American recital debut at Carnegie Hall on Thursday to about as warm a reception as one could dream of. By the end of the night, she had collected no fewer than half a dozen bouquets, all while her friend Anna Netrebko beamed regally from a box in the first tier.

The performance itself was a bit of a mix. On the first half Gerzmava showed a natural sense for the Romantic idiom of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, carving shapely turns and coloring her singing with precise hairpins while showing off the spaciousness of her voice, as in “Tell Me, What’s in the Shade of the Branches,” the fourth of six songs by Tchaikovsky.

But in this first set she exhibited a few technical problems that would continue to nag throughout the evening. The oddly short phrases in her first selection, “It was in the early spring,” later subsided, but the slight cramped feeling in her softer and lower singing did not. Gerzmava’s pitch was often iffy, especially when reaching for a piano or pianissimo up high.

She was at her best when she could really unleash her upper register, letting out the urgent thrill of her soaring high notes. She rendered the familiar “Crown of Roses” with vivid yearning, in spite of a little roughness at the edges of her voice. Showing a more comic side in “Cuckoo,” she sang with bright innocence, landing the tricky flourishes of the song with needle-like precision. The delicate liberties she took with the base tempo lent the piece a coquettish charm.

At the piano, Ekaterina Ganelina was an attentive collaborator, finding room to add a little color of her own with some jazzy blurring in the introduction to the final Tchaikovsky selection, “Does the day reign?” She played with the lid at half-stick, which led to muddling in a few passages, but her sound on the whole was warm and firm.

Hints of tightness and inaccuracy came out more prominently when Gerzmava tried to sing with straight tone, as was apparent at the beginning of her first Rachmaninoff selection, “Twilight.” The rest of this second set, though, was strong, showing solid artistry and moments of brilliance. “Lilacs” was sublime, its lingering phrases beautifully executed with effortless fluidity. In “Before My Window” she showed an ability to spin top notes that shoot out like jets of water, only to taper them down, tugging the notes beautifully at their edges.

Gerzmava moved to operatic repertoire in the second half, and as in the Tchaikovsky her voice did not always seem to cooperate: she simply has too much voice for these arias, as though trying to fit a turkey into a toaster. In “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo, she showed off blooming ascending scales, but it felt as though she had to yank her voice up to the top through sheer force.

The first of Gerzmava’s two Verdi selections was the strongest of the operatic portion. Singing Desdemona’s bedroom scene from Otello (which she will perform at the Met later this season), she brought haunting sighs to a poised but melancholy Willow Song. She managed to achieve more vocal focus than anywhere else on the program in delivering a simple, affecting Ave Maria, marred only by the audible friction at the top of her penultimate “amen.” Ganelina, to her credit, did not try to evoke an orchestra through the piano reduction, but rather worked with the music that she had to give an intelligent, sensitive accompaniment.

Gerzmava narrowed her voice somewhat to navigate the ripples of the aria “Tu del mio Carlo” from I masnadieri. She pulled off all the coloratura in the cabaletta with surprising accuracy, though it felt as though she had to muscle her way through some of it. “Casta diva” from Bellini’s Norma, the last item on the program, was similar: reining in her powerful instrument enough to caress the gentle lyricism of the cavatina meant putting a lid on her voice, covering the sound in a heavy blanket. The brightness of the cabaletta offered her a final chance to show off her gleaming top.

Singing “Casta diva” to a sympathetic crowd is a guarantee of an ecstatic reception, and Thursday’s audience demanded a pair of encores. Gerzmava showed a firm grasp of the Neapolitan style in Ernesto De Curtis’s “Ti voglio tanto bene,” and finished off the night with a frolicking Russian folk song, “Travushka-muravushka.”

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