CD Review: Sonya Yoncheva’s ‘The Courtesan’

By Bob Dieschburg

Amid the controversies surrounding her response to the New York Times’ review of “Norma” at the Met, the latest CD release of Sonya Yoncheva has gone strangely unnoticed.

It is a shame really, as “The Courtesan” (as it is called) offers a very worthwhile retrospective of some 25 years of professional singing in which she revisits role favorites like Thaïs and Manon while cementing, at the same time, her latest moves into the verismo genre.

A lesson in seduction

Chronologically, the tracks cover the half-century between “La Traviata” (1853) and Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” (1904), not to mention a brief excursion into the concert repertoire of “Carmina Burana” which a little unexpectedly closes an otherwise very dense and homogeneous selection of arias.

In line with the album title, the latter befittingly revolve around the operatic theme of the femme fatale whose different iterations Yoncheva embodies with all the vocal and psychological finesse of a true soprano lirico. The timbre is as beautiful as ever, warm and luxurious, yet with increasing heft to the voice’s lower register.

With this in mind, the decision to record “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ “Samson et Dalila” seems entirely justified. Yoncheva revels in the mezzo register and phrases intelligently even though the tone, in itself, does not flow as lavishly as in other recent interpretations.

Verismo rediscovered

Instead, it is in the verismo parts where the Bulgarian soprano shines the most. Her rendition of Iris’ “Ho fatto un triste sogno pauroso” is as dramatically incisive as can be, on par almost with the contouring of the role’s anguish by the great Magda Oliveiro (in a 1963 live recording by Fulvio Vernizzi).

Similarly, I much welcomed the inclusion of “Nel suo amore rianimata” from Giordano’s near-forgotten “Siberia” which the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino had revived for their 2021 season with Yoncheva and Giorgi Sturua in the main roles. The cantilena accords wonderfully with the innate lyricism of her voice which, in addition to the technical range of diminuendos and beautiful filature, commands the whole palette of verismo-style expression, from the quasi-lachrymose to outbursts of anger and elation.

L’art pour l’art?

On the flipside, I gained the sense that Yoncheva has more or less definitively outgrown the earlier parts of her career. Neither Thaïs nor Violetta display the lightheartedness with which she would have been able to infuse them even a few years ago.

Her Thaïs especially has developed into a highly sensuous character, phrasing boldly and with a generous outpour of honeyed tone which has significantly moved away from the vulnerability of the role. It is therefore no coincidence that the lighter coloratura arias of either opera have not been recorded for the present release.

Overall, “The Courtesan” is a compelling panegyric to the intrinsic beauty of the soprano voice. As such, Yoncheva looks to showcase her instrument in ever new configurations which never come at the expense of dramatic authenticity, yet cannot entirely disprove the sneaking suspicion of just being art for art’s sake.

Be that as it may, with her fifth solo album she proves her preeminent position in the world of opera once again, despite the recent disagreements with the press and a drastic rethinking of her relationship with both fans and critics.


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