CD Review: Rossini Arias

Julia Lezhneva; Sinfonia Varsovia/Marc Minkowski (Naïve)

16 October 2011 4 stars

Julia LezhnevaIsabella Colbran was a mere sixteen years old when, in 1801, she made her professional concert début in Paris. In an intriguing case of trans-historical serendipity, soprano Julia Lezhneva made her professional début, like Colbran, at sixteen.  Despite her young age (or, perhaps, because of it), Lezhneva recently has become something of a sensation for her concert and competition performances of Rossini and Mozart, and her first solo album is a charming selection of, expectedly, Rossini arias. In addition to her all-Rossini program, the similarity to Colbran is further recalled whilst reading the young soprano's biography accompanying the Naïve album: with its recitation of prestigious prizes won and the juicy divulgence that Lezhneva first began competing in vocal competitions at the ripe-old-age of twelve, one surely cannot be admonished for possessing high expectations of the young soprano's vocal and dramatic abilities.

Unfortunately, the Naïve label presents a soprano attempting to achieve a level of artistic excellence that is, for now, beyond her, not simply because of age, but also, at twenty-one years old, lack of experience. Lezhneva is unquestionably a talented young singer: her brilliant coloratura leaves one listening over and over again to, notably, her renditions of La donna del lago's "Tanti affetti" and La Cenerentola's "Nacqui all'affanno." It is no coincidence that Lezhneva excels at these earlier Rossini arias.  Both possess an unmistakable immediacy in terms of tone and dramatic flair, save one or two unsupported moments in her upper range. The enthusiasm Letzhneva brings to both reveals how well suited she is to Rossini's more comic ventures. 

As one moves forward in the composer's oeuvre, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that Lezhneva's seemingly expert coloratura alone cannot carry the whole disc into the libraries of Rossini aficionados, especially in the arias that rely on the intricate subtleties of lyrical tone painting. Her rendition of Guillaume Tell's "Ils s'éloignent enfin" (more commonly referred to as "Sombre forêt") thus sounds rather blandly, despite her well-executed pianissimo high As and her pointed (but colorless) legato. As her only selection in French—a language that so vitally relies on colorful inflection—the aria perhaps suggests that, at the expense of variety, Lezhneva might have stuck to an all-Italian recital, a language she has clearly mastered. 

Generally, Lezhneva's tendency to push her voice on any note above the staff creates a razor-sharp tone á la Maria Callas, a worrisome quality in a singer so young and full of promise. The pushing is most apparent in her final selection, L'assedio di Corinto's "L'ora fatal s'apressa."  It is fatal indeed: her lack of experience shows most fully as her vocal execution suffers from the dramatic demands of the aria. It's clear that she chose it (perhaps under the influence of Maestro Minkowski) to showcase her versatility; but her tone is unwieldy, lacking any sense of purpose, and with each renewed phrase one is of want for the legato and finesse of Beverly Sills, an inevitable point of comparison for a soprano choosing to sing this difficult aria.

Minkowski conducts the Sinfonia Varsovia with a keen sense of flair that supports Lezhneva expertly. In their only solo piece on this recital, the "Sinfonia" from La Cenerentola, the orchestra sets the mood for Lezhneva's playful rendition of Cinder's final aria.  Minkowski and his players (especially the strings) should be commended on their very clean execution throughout. Additionally, the Warsaw Chamber Opera Choir added a much needed dramatic presence to the recital.

Overall, Lezhneva shines most brilliantly in the semi-comic Rossini arias, where she succeeds at sounding her age healthily, does not push, and provides a thrillingly accurate coloratura. What she lacks in the more mature Rossini arias surely will surface with more experience performing opera, not just opera-in-concert. Perhaps her next disc will feature composers other than Rossini; maybe a mix of Mozart arias or early Italian songs would showcase her better, less naively.

By Michael Migliore