To date, audiences at the Metropolitan Opera have experienced Violeta Urmana only as Kundry, the shape-shifting seductress of Wagner’s Parsifal. This month brings the chance to catch up on two other of her signature roles — Verdi’s conniving princess Eboli and Mascagni’s dishonored village girl Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. (Broadcasts are slated for consecutive weekends.) I can vouch for the Eboli from her incandescent portrayal in Willy Decker’s new Don Carlo in Amsterdam last June, opposite Rolando Villazón in his impassioned debut in the title role. Making her entrance among the ladies of the court, costumed in a black dress that matched all of theirs, Urmana advanced on the page Tebaldo like a tigress, her sly, mocking sensuality a magnet to every eye. She had the audience riveted before she sang a note. In the veil song, she followed through with stylish brilliance and an apt hint of danger. “O don fatale,” ablaze with intensity, sealed her triumph.
Even with these additions to Urmana’s Met repertoire, New York will remain woefully far behind the curve. “After the Met, I might do Eboli again for my farewell performance,” she says with a big grin. Nor does she have any immediate plans for further Santuzzas, a part she says she loves, but one that in just an hour takes more out of her spiritually than any other in operas that run several times as long.
Though Urmana made her name quickly as a dramatic mezzo, it was as a soprano that she began her studies in her native Lithuania, vocalizing a half-step beyond the high F where the Queen of the Night calls it quits. When she had just one year to go in the five-year voice program at the Academy of Music in Vilnius, her teachers convinced themselves that she was really a coloratura mezzo and gave her a steady diet of Rossini. Now, she is ready to reclaim her birthright. Already, Europeans have witnessed her metamorphosis into a coin-of-the-realm dramatic soprano, confirmed by successes as Sieglinde in Bayreuth’s Ring cycles of 2002 (two years after her highly praised Waltraute in the same production), as Isolde at concerts in Rome in March 2004, and as the Leonore of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, last October, weeks after opening the season there as the suicidal street singer in concert performances of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. (She has also recorded Gioconda for EMI, opposite Plácido Domingo.) Her engagements for future Met seasons include Gioconda, Maddalena de Coigny in Giordano's Andrea Chénier and, in a role debut, the heroine of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.
Four years ago, when our paths first crossed, Urmana sounded thrilled about her imminent switch to soprano. “My voice wants to go higher,” she said, with complete conviction. Today, with three well-functioning octaves at her disposal, she has no hesitation about soaring to a high D in public. But despite a largely unanimous chorus of critical approval, she now evinces some ambivalence about her new niche.
“I still have my doubts,” Urmana volunteered the day after the Forza premiere in London this past October. It is one of those changeable British autumn days when the mercury swerves madly from Indian summer to arctic. Urmana has dressed for the cold, in a well-tailored coat and slacks that might suggest the proprietor of a prosperous, well-managed enterprise in the ex-Soviet bloc, and her makeup, though assertive, is hardly flamboyant. If you saw her outside on Drury Lane, you might not peg her for a stage creature.
For a quick take on the Urmana Dilemma, there’s an experiment a listener may try at home. Simply make an A/B comparison of the singer’s cameo as Death in James Conlon’s account of Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol, recorded in February 1999, with the duet from the prologue of Wag-ner’s Götterdämmerung on Domingo’s album Scenes from “The Ring,” conducted by Antonio Pappano and dating from July 2001 (both on EMI).
In the earlier document, Urmana pours her sound smoothly into Stravinsky’s throaty tessitura, achieving a darkly Slavic hue of great glamour and allure. Fine work, to be sure, but her Brünnhilde is in another class: jubilant, ecstatic, fearless. The problematic middle-voice passage beginning “Willst du mir Minne schen-ken,” which in the renditions of most recent Valkyries has sounded lackluster, actually shines with ardor. She sculpts phrases as with strokes of a sword. And the timbre, edged with a fiery, flickering vibrato, is pure soprano. Here, in what our fussy ears can recognize as high fidelity, are a nobility, authority and sense of ownership to conjure up a golden age of historic recordings when Wagner’s world was new, or newer.
On many counts, Urmana recalls that bygone age when a diva of the opera (the only kind there was) had other things to do than compete with supermodels. Her ample proportions, the imposing stature (she stands 5 foot 10), the broad, proud cheekbones: all hark back to the age of the Victrola. The voice, too, seems old-fashioned in a most welcome sense. Whether in deep repose (Mahler’s Lied von der Erde) or in an Amazon’s verismo passion (La Gioconda), her deluxe power instrument never loses its silken sheen. As an actress, too, Urmana holds to a classic standard: she neither flails nor fusses but scores her points with bold clarity of purpose. In an age mad for youth, she has the glow of maturity.
New Yorkers got a striking sample of Urmana’s gifts in February 2002, at the New York Philharmonic, in concert performances of Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The spotlight that night was on Deborah Voigt’s Isolde-in-the-making. Nevertheless, it was Urmana as Brangäne who pulled off the evening’s one coup de théâtre: at the close of the first scene, rather than exit from the podium, concert-style, she swept down into the auditorium and up the aisle, her low-cut gown of royal-blue satin rustling, her huge, ravenous eyes a blaze of blue lightning. When next heard from, Urmana was high on a balcony, unseen, pouring forth those transcendent warnings in a quiet flood of amber sound — a moment sure to live in memory when the rest is forgotten.
Unlike Brangäne, Kundry is a role Urmana has no intention of relinquishing, and who would wish her to? When she came along, the character seemed the all-but-exclusive property of her German colleague Waltraud Meier. But in dramatic as well as vocal terms, the newcomer has a startling alternative to offer. Where Meier goes the distance with Kundry’s tortured schizophrenia, Urmana reveals, behind the anguish, a primordial, maternal wholeness of soul dimly remembered and half-consciously longed for.
That contrast shows up in starkest fashion when Kundry screams. Repeatedly, Wagner directs the character to do so in verbal descriptions. Only once does he actually write out the notes, and then the call is for a kamikaze plunge from high B-natural (marked sforzando) to the C-sharp nearly two octaves below. Even at the fixed pitches, Meier really does scream. Conversely, Urmana gives even the improvised cries a kind of wild music.
Urmana’s Kundry is now a fixture on the international scene. Her first Forza Leonora, on the other hand, was news. Alas, the production at Covent Garden — the first there since 1975 — was not quite the triumph the world had been hoping for. For technical reasons, the company had to modify massive decor that Hugo de Ana originally devised for Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, but the solutions put forward at short notice so displeased him that he removed his name from the production.
As music director of La Scala, Riccardo Muti felt honor-bound to follow suit, withdrawing from what would have been his first Covent Garden engagement in twenty years. With just twenty-three days to go, Covent Garden’s music director, Antonio Pappano, took over an epic score he had never performed before, acquitting himself respectably. But the male principals (Salvatore Licitra, Ambrogio Maestri and Ferruccio Furlanetto), hand-picked by Muti, did not deliver the excitement they have under his baton on happier occasions.
Nor was Urmana seen to her best advantage. In the first scene — her only chance to shine as a romantic heroine — her dress and wig looked like hand-me-downs from the duenna. For her next scenes, in male disguise à la Fidelio, she sported a rakish gaucho hat Marlene Dietrich might have had fun with. Not until her final act in sackcloth did Urmana seem like she was in the right movie. Yet from first to last, the power and bloom of her sound, as well as the authority of her phrasing, minimized the damage.
Though she made no complaint about Pappano, she clearly regards her musical partnership with Muti as something special. They have collaborated on Gluck (La Haine in Armide, the heroine in Iphigénie en Tauride) and Verdi (the Requiem and Azucena in Il Trovatore, in which Urmana delivered not only the composer’s requested high C but an extra high note or two inserted in a cadenza at the come scritto maestro’s unusual request). “I look at his face and see such a look of expectation,” Urmana says. “Then I sing, and I can see on his face, ‘Yes. That was it.’”
Some in the audience who feel that Urmana underacts her parts were heard to say that she was doing so in Forza. Subjective as such judgments are, it seems worth pointing out that Urmana takes an approach to the drama that may be at variance with theirs. “I always start with the music,” she says. “I look for the character’s tone — not for mine. The point is not to be a generic soprano.” Thus, her mortified, breathless professions of love in the opening scene gave a first hint of how completely she would encompass Leonora’s torn personality. With her hopeful arrival at the monastery and the gloomy final act, Urmana kept that promise, revealing in timbre and accent the sharp pangs of guilt that keep striking even as Leonora pursues her mirage of stoic acceptance.
How would she rate her first night? “I’ll need to hear a live tape,” she replies. “That will be very important. It feels strange to sing this music, to be a soprano. You sing differently. You have to balance the registers, smooth them out. The middle voice can’t be as heavy as it has to be for a mezzo. You can’t have a break to the chest register. I feel much, much better in the higher roles. But there’s also the question of vocal color. Studying the soprano parts, I have always felt that they are sacred — that only a soprano who calls herself a soprano is allowed to sing Aida. But maybe I’ll sing an Aida soon.” Already, she has had offers, though none that would fit her calendar.
The reason her Lithuanian teachers demoted Urmana to a mezzo years ago was that her voice was not ringing free in the vicinity of high C and above. Now that it does, Urmana supposes she could sing the consumptive courtesan in Verdi whose name she shares. In fact, she programmed the opera’s popular brindisi on a New Year’s Eve gala in Vilnius. Her partner was her fiancé, an aspiring Italian tenor four inches taller than she by the name of Alfredo (yes!) Nigro. Violeta and Alfredo! They brought down the house.
But those were special circumstances. “You can sing whatever you like — Gilda, Sonnambula. But do you have the color, the fragility? Do you look the part? Later I’ll do Brünnhilde and more Isoldes. Lady Macbeth is written beautifully for me. I have no ambition to sing everything. If I can’t sing Aida with a high pianissimo, I won’t do it.” She has retired Amneris, an old bread-and-butter part of hers. “That role was the greatest torture I’ve experienced in my life as a singer,” she declares. “I never wanted to scream. My voice needs music with a lot of line, or it breaks. Amneris needs a vulgar, brutal quality in the middle voice that I don’t have and don’t want.”
Urmana has the late bloomer’s awareness (shared by the Marschallin of Der Rosenkavalier, whose temperament and tessitura would suit her to perfection) that time is precious. Consider her attitude toward new productions, so coveted by so many of her peers. “It’s always an honor to be asked,” she says. “But then, you never know what it will be. Mostly, I’ve been lucky. I haven’t been asked to do lots of crazy things. I’m very curious what will happen in Munich when I do a new Forza there, directed by David Alden. As long as he doesn’t want me to sing with my head upside down, or do a whole show on my knees, we should be all right. I don’t want to wait around onstage for hours while they move a light. And I don’t want to spend six weeks of rehearsal to do something terrible, that makes no sense and is in the wrong period. But of course, every Intendant needs a scandal. For myself, I’m happy to do existing productions. You know what’s expected, and you make your contribution.”