Verdi CD Review: Sonya Yoncheva’s New Album Is A Mixed Bag Of The Composer’s Favorites

By Francisco Salazar

Three years ago when Sonya Yoncheva recorded her first album “Paris Mon Amour,” it was a triumph. It was an album filled with a variety of interesting repertoire and a voice with great color and flexibility. It captured a rising star that was on the path to stardom and gave an incredible vibrancy to each reading on the album.

Fast forward to 2018 for Yoncheva’s highly anticipated Verdi album.

The soprano has undoubtedly gained weight in the voice and it is a more opulent one. But in favor of opulence, the voice has lost color and flexibility.  And more troubling still, the album showcases an artist who breezes through each aria without giving each work a sense of true individuality.

So what is exactly on this album?

The album begins with “Tacea la Notte Placida” from “Il Trovatore” in what seems tailored-made for her lyric instrument. But as she begins the aria, Yoncheva lands into accentuated phrasing that only gets choppier as the aria develops. The soprano emphasizes the rhythm giving it an uneven staccato sound and before she enters the second melody “Gioia,” there are awkward pauses that make the aria lose the momentum it is building towards. The cadenza features yet another pause that leads to the biggest issue of the aria: as Yoncheva rises to the High C, the voice becomes strident and acquires an intense wobble. There is even some questionable intonation that simply doesn’t seem appropriate for such a high-profile release.

The “Di Tale Amor” cabaletta begins with a fresh and soft piano that is very reminiscent of Maria Callas’ phrasing. The voice takes on flexibility and the coloratura is dispatched with agility. But as she rises to the higher tessitura, the voice gets thick and intonation starts to suffer. While the cabaletta is well sung, the coda suffers from questionable accents and heavy breathing. But she does finish off the aria with a nice B.

The second aria in the album is “Tu Puniscimi” from “Lusia Miller.” Yoncheva begins with an assertive tone though her singing is more notable for numerous intonation issues and accented phrases. While the diction is superb, the words don’t quite connect to the music. The pleas of Luisa Miller are sung with relaxed tonal color and when she has to rise to the climatic cadenza, the aria is marred once more by more pauses. But perhaps the most questionable choice overall is the absence of the ensuing cabaletta.

Next up is Odabella’s second aria, “Liberamente or piangi,” which should evoke reflection. But the first phrases out of Yoncheva’s voice come with a rushed accent. And when she begins the phrase “Io Son,” there is clear strain as if she were trying to push power out of her voice. Long pauses are the trademark of second half of the aria and while she begins with a lush tone and beautiful pianissimos in the second half of the aria, the constant wobble and accents become more present, detracting from a consistency of line. Her final high C is once again pushed and feels uncontrolled.

One of the most interesting inclusions in the album is Lina’s aria ” A te ascenda, o Dio clemente” from “Stiffelio” which begins with an expressive and gorgeous tone and spinning coloratura. But as with the previous tracks the moment she enters the higher tessitura, the voice seems unsteady. But beyond the vocal issues, the aria meanders a bit, the sense of an emotional direction rather lacking overall. This may not be Yoncheva’s fault but her conductor who doesn’t support her with the orchestra and who pauses every other moment.

The “Pace Pace Mio Dio” which follows opens with a forceful accent on the opening “Pace.” What follows is similarly accented, giving the aria a sense of musical predictability and an overall lack of shape or progression. Moreover, by singing with full tone throughout, Yoncheva takes away from the possibility to build to the climax more progressively and what we get is a “Maledizione” that feels empty. Yoncheva scoops into the B cutting it off quickly and cutting off the final word.

Her “Ave Maria” from “Otello” is sung with poise and a beautiful mezza voce in perhaps one of her finest selections of the album. You get the gentler qualities throughout and it offers respite from much of the other selections.

In the “Come in quest’ora bruna” Yoncheva gives nuance to the opening phrase, allowing her bright lyric soprano to shine. And there is some lovely mezza voce singing that showcases the strengths of the soprano. Again, however, the voice gives way all too easily to aggressive accents that impale the beauty of the performances. And in her high tessitura, the sopranos opens up, rather than covering her high notes making the wobble in her voice all too present.

The opposite can be said of her “Tu che le vanità.” Here the soprano is in her comfort zone and she gives Elisabetta more strength at the beginning of the aria than one would expect. The middle voice is rich and alluring throughout but it is when she arrives at the B section that it all starts to fall apart. The tempi by Massimo Zanetti are much too slow with unnecessary ritardandi making the piece feel a bit lost at sea instead of having a clear horizon. Still, Yoncheva holds it together with her intensity and her driving force. Unlike the rest of the arias in this album, Yoncheva lightens up the voice to give each of Elisabetta’s mood changes a different color even if sometimes it goes out of tune. But her full artistry is on display in this track and one wishes more of that was on this album. and one wishes this was the final track of the album.

But instead, Yoncheva takes the bold move of finishing off with Abigaille’s aria from “Nabucco.” It is a daring move and one that has mixed results. While her “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno” is well-sung, using her lyric qualities and lightens up the voice to give Abigaille a sympathetic nature, it is when she arrives at the cadenza that it becomes labored and voice’s beauty is diminished. Then comes the fiendishly difficult cabaletta. “Salgo Gia del Trono aurato,” which requires power and agility. Throughout this selection, Yoncheva’s sound takes an airy quality filled with extremely present breathing and the low register takes on a hollow sound that makes it sound flat. The upper register is strident throughout almost as if she was forcing the power out of the voice. Her choice not to repeat was probably a wise one because the High C that she rises to at the end is neither climatic or nor powerful, it is worrisome.

A Support System

Massimo Zanetti conducts with finesse in most of the album emphasizing the string sections and allowing Yoncheva to showcase her voice. But sometimes, like in the “Stiffelio” aria, Zanetti takes so many liberties with the work that there is no flow or sense of direction. The same happens with the “Don Carlo” aria.

The album is overall a good selection of works but it lacks any flavor or order. It goes from one adagio or andante to the next eliminating Verdi’s Cabalettas making it a bit colorless. There is no sense of order and instead it feels like arias were just put in random order without any thought to it. One also wishes that Yoncheva would have shared a track for a duet like she did in her previous outings with Sony.

All in all, if you are looking for fresh readings of Verdi’s greatest arias, this is not the one. Yoncheva is growing into one of the greatest sopranos of our time but this recording lacks Yoncheva’s potential and one wishes she would slow down.


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